(The estimated reading time for this is 6 minutes)
Sometimes, when I think about the past, I get nervous.
For instance, if I think of how unlikely it was that I met my amazing wife, the precise confluence of conditions and choices, it will actually increase my heart rate.
Remembering close calls has the same effect as examining long shots. What if I’d taken the highway instead of a side route that day of the multi-car pileup? What if that one time walking to class I hadn’t been with a friend who grabbed me by the shoulder and yanked me back onto the curb when I stepped obliviously in front of a bus?
I try not to think about these things, because I get a little jolt of adrenaline every time as if things might still have a chance of not turning out okay. One memory comes to me most often, leaving that slightly panicked feeling.
When I was sixteen I worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken. This was almost twenty years ago, before they’d changed their name officially to KFC. I fried things, mostly chicken (and actual chicken. KFC is the only fast food chain I know of whose food resembles food). The extra crispy chicken is fried in a normal drop fryer, the same kind you’d find in any restaurant kitchen. The original recipe is pressure fried, though, two chickens at a time. A pair of sectioned birds are placed into a grillwork device that looks exactly like a two-story birdcage (irony!) which is lowered into a tubular vat of hot oil before the lid is closed and sealed tight and the timer is set.
Like I said, the chicken I fried was real chicken, taken raw from the back freezer, so it was also dredged in real, dusty flour, not pre-coated. The fry cook had to drain the oil and clean the fryers every night, and the worst part was scraping out the flour that floated off the chicken to the top where it then cooked in an oil-level ring for seven hours. The regular fryers were bad enough, but in the pressure fryers that ring of crust was concrete hard. It was also deep down in the fryer, because dropping two birds and a cage into a narrow tube caused a big shift in oil-level. When those items were removed, the oil dropped and cooked a ring of crust a couple of feet down into the fryer.
So every night I leaned into this thing, still hot from the drained oil, and scraped the crust out with a paint scraper. It took awhile. By closing time, layers of flour had spent hours accumulating and cooking under pressure.
I followed a very specific routine. I like routine. Anyone who knows me will laugh at that understatement. I do things in a very particular order, with a very particular rhythm, and if that is upset, I am upset. So when I think back on that night, I wonder why I stepped away to fill my soda at that moment. Yeah, I was hot. Yeah, I frequently took advantage of the free soda policy. But I didn’t drain the fryers and then step away. That wasn’t in the routine.
But that night I did, and as I filled my soda at the fountain, the whole kitchen turned orange. I spun around, and a pillar of flame stood where my head and arms and chest should have been, blasting from the fryer all the way to the ceiling. I’d forgotten to flip the fryer off, and without the oil to disperse the heat, the elements got hot enough to catch the thin layer of oil aflame.
I stood frozen. The shift manager ran over and knocked the lid down, smothering the fire before it caught the ceiling on fire, just blackening it a bit.
I don’t like that memory. It makes me very anxious, which is a little counterintuitive. Thinking logically, I should maybe look back on it happily as a moment of amazing luck. I’m sure lottery winners remember that moment of realization happily (at least if they haven’t gone broke yet). And I think I enjoy not being burned from the waist up even more than I’d enjoy being a millionaire, so I can’t explain my anxiety. I have some ideas, though.
A mundane reason: I have a very vivid imagination. This is pretty obvious. In order to write a novel, you have to not only create a world that doesn’t exist, but sustain it for the hundreds of hours it takes to complete the work. And for me, writing fiction requires losing myself in that other world. If I don’t, the process is torturous and the product is flat. Luckily, my internal world has always been at least as strong as my perception of the external world. Thus my very annoying tendency to go so deep into thought that I don’t hear what people say to me. It’s rude, but I can’t help it, and my poor wife has learned to not take it too personally.
So my brain doesn’t differentiate well between memory, imagination and external stimuli. Really, no one’s brain knows the difference in kind, only in degree. What you’re perceiving at any given moment is already a memory. By the time it reaches your consciousness, it’s the past. It’s been interpreted, run through your filters and the world has moved on. It’s just a more vivid memory than one of twenty years ago. But some of these memories of close calls jarred me badly enough to stay very vivid.
That doesn’t explain why I actually worry about how the memory will end. I think about how low the odds were for meeting my wife, and I worry that maybe this time, when my memory plays through, I won’t. Something will happen differently. The memory of the night at Kentucky Fried Chicken begins, and I worry that this time, I won’t walk away to fill my soda, that I’ll be reaching way down into that fryer when it ignites.
When I catch myself doing this, having anxiety over the way years-past events will turn out, I have to laugh at myself. But that doesn’t mean that when my mind is left to its own wanderings it won’t do the same thing again. Those paths have been worn deep.
I have another theory about this anxiety, a strange one: that it’s actually guilt.
Every so often I read something (usually just a headline, because I figure the article will be over my head) saying that scientists have new evidence or a new theory increasing the likelihood of alternate universes, a multiverse in which ours is just one branch. If it was a hundred-to-one chance that I stepped away from that fryer only a few seconds before it went up in flame, then for every universe like mine where I got nothing but a scare and a book idea out of the mistake, there are ninety-nine where I ended up horrifically burned. I didn’t suffer for my mistake, but ninety-nine other versions of me did.
It’s probably better to not think about things like that. And yet, because I choose to write about things that upset me, Dream of the Serpent is me chasing these ideas as far as I can. The protagonist is badly burned in a fire exactly like the one I avoided, making the novel a meditation on what could have happened to me, what might have actually happened to other incarnations of me, and I think an apology to those unlucky incarnations who suffered for my carelessness.
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