When I was sixteen, I became the dishwasher at a barbecue restaurant in Corpus Christi, a hot, humid city on the Coastal Bend of Texas. I almost didn’t get the job because the manager of the place, Gary, didn’t like me. Gary was a short, grizzled fellow in his 40s who ran his restaurant with a smoker’s voice and an iron fist. I was a skinny kid from the suburbs, apparently naïve, and he didn’t think I knew how to work.

The restaurant was a rectangular building made of painted concrete blocks and a flat roof. Attached to the building proper was a “pit room,” which was a fenced-in area covered by a slanted roof made of corrugated steel. A screen was pinned between the top of the fence and the roof to keep bugs out. There were three cylindrical barbecue pits, ten feet tall and six feet in diameter, which had been made from sections of oil pipeline. Each had three doors: Behind the bottom door was the fire, and behind the top two were grates where we cooked racks of pork ribs and whole beef briskets. The briskets and ribs continuously rained liquid fat upon the fire, causing it to flare on occasion, so you had to pay close attention to the air supply to make sure you didn’t burn what you were cooking.

The only reason I got the job at all was because of the restaurant owner, Kenny. Kenny was Gary’s younger brother. He was more financially successful than Gary and fancied himself as a privileged guy. My family wasn’t exactly rolling in money, but we were closer to the middle class than Gary or the rest of the employees there, and Kenny seemed to like that about me. I think he enjoyed having a “college boy” around, which is what they all took to calling me after I graduated from high school the next year.

For six hours a day on weekdays, and eight on the weekends, I stood in front of a stainless steel sink with an overhead water sprayer in my hand and cleaned dishes and pots and pans. When I wasn’t at the sink, my job was to separate tiny chunks of beef from long strips of leftover brisket fat. These tiny chunks eventually added up to a plastic tub of flesh that we mixed with barbecue sauce and called “chopped beef.” Being so intimate with the fat, this was the most tender meat in the brisket and tasted wonderful on a sandwich bun. It was the second most popular item we sold. But that meat sat on a table, unrefrigerated and uncovered, for hours, and no one who worked there would eat it.

Once a week, each of the barbecue pits had to be cleaned, because the constant rain of fat and grease coated the grates and the interior circumference of the pit. The way we cleaned the pits was to set them on fire. Literally. We removed the meat, opened all three doors, and started a big fire. The fire fueled itself on the caked-on grease and would climb all the way to the top of the pit. As the fire grew we shut first the bottom and then the middle door, leaving the top door open until we could see flames licking at the top. Then we’d shut that door with a long gardening tool that looked like a straightened hoe. As the fire raged inside, flames ten feet high, the air hole at the very bottom would hiss as oxygen was sucked through it. That was the sound of the fire breathing.

Eventually we’d suffocate the fire and allow the pit to cool slightly, and then it was the dishwasher’s job to climb inside and scrape loosened grease off the walls. I was the dishwasher, so that meant me. As you can imagine, it was massively hot in there. Hot and nasty. When I emerged from the pit, the only surface of my body not entirely black were the whites of my eyes. Even after fifteen minutes scrubbing with soap in the filthy kitchen bathroom, I could only begin to find the pink skin of my arms and face.

Eventually, after a couple of years, I worked my way up to the Head Cook job. This was much easier. Mainly you stood in the pit room and listened to music. Or smoked weed if that was your thing. Or you fantasized about which of the serving line girls you wanted to sleep with. I was still a virgin, but I nevertheless imagined that Brenda, she of the giant D-cup breasts, would one day saunter into the pit room and seduce me. She was thirteen years my senior, and the stories about her exploits with older men at the restaurant became my imaginary porn. There was no Internet back then and my family didn’t subscribe to Cinemax, so what else was I supposed to do?

In the morning, the cook on duty would take briskets, forty or fifty of them, out of the walk-in freezer and load them into one of the pits. Then he would take a natural gas “torch” and use it to start a new fire. The torch was a half-inch natural gas line with a metal fitting on the end. It took forever to light a fire this way, like thirty minutes on a good day. We didn’t have kindling, after all. Just mesquite logs.

As it happened, the morning of December 24, 1989 was my shift. Residents of Texas and other areas of the south may remember 1989 as one of the coldest Decembers on record. The low that morning at Corpus Christi International Airport was 15 degrees, which was actually two degrees warmer than the previous morning. The palm trees were not happy. It was so cold the thermostat in my truck’s coolant system froze stuck on the way to the restaurant, causing the engine to overheat. So I was late to work and already pissed off when I got there. I had no patience to watch a feeble natural gas flame ignite eight mesquite logs, especially not when Brenda stepped into the pit room and asked if I would help her carry a pot of barbecue sauce into the kitchen.

I never worried about the burgeoning fire. It was 15 degrees outside, so I figured if anything the logs would take longer than normal to ignite. Brenda and the other girls were inside, and I was happy to chat them up about whatever. The restaurant wasn’t scheduled to open for another two hours, so Gary the crotchety manager was still at home in bed. Everything was good.

This is why, when we heard someone banging on the front door, I didn’t immediately understand what was happening. Even when he yelled, “The pit room is on fire!” my brain didn’t want to make the connection. I’d only been inside for five minutes, maybe ten. Nowhere near enough time for a fire to start.

Still, I took off for the back door. My heart begin to hammer in my chest. What if the pit was on fire? It was fully loaded with briskets. Hundreds of dollars worth of briskets.

I reached, the door, yanked it open, and what I saw was a monster.

Flames were pouring out of all three open doors. The pit was ten feet tall, remember, and the slanted roof was only another three or four feet higher. The flames from the top door had already burned a hole in the corrugated steel. From my vantage point, the open doors blocked me from most of the heat, but I knew what I had to do–get those doors closed. If I didn’t, the whole pit room would burn down. Maybe the entire restaurant.

I found the hoe-like tool and approached the pit. The heat was immense. Overwhelming. Even protected by the steel doors I could hardly approach it. And my efforts to close the doors were futile. They wouldn’t move. When I pushed on them, the fire pushed back. It was a live thing, that fire. It roared at me.

This angle was never going to work, so foolishly I decided to try another tactic. I walked around pit #3 and approached the burning pit head on. This was a big mistake. Without the doors to protect me, I was exposed to the full force of the fire, which immediately flash-burned all the exposed skin on my body. It was like standing on the surface of the Sun. I retreated. I stood back and watched flames consume the briskets, watched the fire climb through the hole in the roof. I imagined the entire restaurant would burn to the ground, all because I had stupidly left an open flame unattended.

Eventually the fire department arrived and sprayed water everywhere. When they were gone, the pit still stood strong, but the briskets were a charred, soaking mess. They were lost. The 80-quart plastic ice chest, the one we stored cooked briskets in, was melted like candle wax. I was devastated.

Gary arrived a few minutes later, and I knew it was only a matter of time before he sent me home. But somehow he didn’t. A few minutes later, the owner, Kenny showed up. He pulled me aside and told me not to worry. The fire wasn’t negligence on my part, he said, because I’d been inside helping the girls. He called my mistake a “hustling error.” Which was partly true and partly not, so I still felt terrible.

Later that evening, after the restaurant closed, we held a Secret Santa Christmas party. I was in a sour mood and not interested in exchanging presents. All I wanted was to go home. But eventually someone handed me a wrapped box, which I reluctantly opened. What I found inside finally made me smile.

It was a toy fire truck.

After I finished college and moved to Tulsa, I drove my girlfriend to Corpus to show her where I had grown up. I was especially excited to take her by the restaurant, since I had told her many horror stories about that place. But as we approached the parking lot, I could see something was wrong. Where the building should have been, there was just a pile of ground-up asphalt

We went somewhere else to eat, and after we ordered, I pulled the waitress aside and asked her if she knew what had happened to the barbecue restaurant.

She nodded gravely, as if I were inquiring about the dead.

“Yeah,” she said. “It burned down.”

I could start off by saying I was a shy kid and I liked books more than people and my dad was a rough oilfield man and blah blah blah, woe is me, and now I’m a writer and everything is all better.

The reality is I was shy and I’m not sure why, because inside I felt I could soar as high as the sky if only someone would pay attention to me.

Like in the sixth grade I could stand in my back yard and make fifty straight free throws, but I was barely five feet tall and my feet were already bigger than my dad’s and I didn’t move around very well. Which is why on the playground no one passed the basketball to me and when they finally did I was so surprised I didn’t know what to do with it. Six years later I would make fifteen three-pointers in a single game on the way to 51 total points, but obviously in the sixth grade no one knew that.

On many sunset evenings I would run pass patterns in the front yard and my dad would throw the football to me over and over until I never let it hit the ground. “If you can touch it you can catch it,” he would say. But at school I was short and slow on my clown feet and no one would throw me the ball. The only time they did I scored a touchdown, but somehow no one ever remembered that.

If I had known it was possible I would have sold my soul to be Keith. Keith was the fastest human in our school and possibly the entire city of elementary schools, and like Superman he could score a touchdown every time he touched the ball. He could pour shots into the hoop like Magic Johnson. He could destroy you in kickball, in foursquare, in anything. All I wanted in the world was to be like him.

The situation was different in the classroom. In there I was dominant, or rather co-dominant along with my friend Kevin. It didn’t matter what subject it was, the two of us always finished projects first and tests first and read the assigned chapter first and then sat around wondering what was taking everyone else so long. If there had been teams to pick, we would have been captains, and if there had been a ball to hog, it would have been ours. If you scored lower than the 99th percentile in any subject on the CAT test, you melted from the scorching shame.

I wanted to believe I had a leg up on Kevin because we made the same grades but I was more social than him. Or not so much social as wanted to be social. I was shy but I didn’t want to be shy. Kevin was a vastly different animal. He didn’t listen to music. He didn’t like girls. I had a huge crush on this girl named Gigi ever since I saw her on the cafeteria stage dancing to Billy Joel. She had brown hair and green eyes and put her hands on her side-thrust hips when she talked to you. She had attitude. I knew she wanted to go around with me but that attitude was intimidating so I never asked her. Still, I talked to her every day while Kevin read the extra credit chapter. When I asked him why didn’t he listen to music or talk to girls, he would say, “A Jedi craves not these things.”

As much as I wanted it, I knew I didn’t really have a leg up on Kevin. He was just as smart as me. For that matter, Keith’s grades were almost as good as ours. And even though we were all close friends, along with Jason and Butch and plenty of others in the neighborhood, there was an unspoken pecking order. Keith, being both smart and athletic, was unquestionably at the top. Jason lived in Country Club so he had votes for second place, as did Butch, who was friends with all the girls and whose parents were cool enough to own a Datsun 280ZX. Kevin and I were a bit lower, but to be honest everything below Keith was kind of hazy, and one big victory could propel any of us skyward. And finally in the middle of the sixth grade I found my chance: the Spelling Bee.

One of my mom’s favorite stories is how I took to reading at an early age. I was prone to picking up books and trying to figure out what they meant and learned my ABCs when I was three. By the time I started kindergarten I was already reading, or so the story goes, and my mom always gets a twinkle in her eye when she tells that part.

So it was understood by everyone in our class that I would win the school Spelling Bee. It wasn’t in doubt. The bigger question was if I would win the city and regional competitions and go onto the national finals. I was that good.

Every afternoon, in the days leading up to the Bee, my mom picked up Words of the Champions and grilled me for hours. We spent little time with the first round words because I could spell those in my sleep. The grunt work was in the second round words, and third round words were for heavy lifters. School Bees, we understood, rarely made it to the third round words, but we studied them anyway. The word we loved the most was dirigisme, which I’ve never forgotten how to spell, though I never knew what it meant until just this year.

On the day of the school Spelling Bee, everyone congratulated me ahead of time. Keith especially had little doubt. “You got this, man,” he would say. He knew what a star looked like because he was always that guy on the field. But today was my day and that cafeteria stage was my field, my court, my 18th hole green.

My mom and I suffered through a mostly contentious relationship back then. It was rare to see her smile, but this day was different. She knew how much work we had put in and was ready to see it pay off. There were maybe thirty of us kids who filed on stage and found our chairs. I looked out at the crowd, seventy-five parents and teachers, and found my mom among them. She smiled. I knew this time, finally, I would make her proud. I couldn’t wait for the Bee to begin.

Especially when the emcee of the event announced that this year’s competition would consist of only first round words. I never found out why. But as murmurs and whispers passed over the crowd, I became even more confident. First round words were for babies.

As I said I was a shy kid, so when it was my turn to approach the microphone my heart was galloping in my chest. But the training paid off. I easily knew how to spell that first word and plenty of words after, and gradually the number of kids on the stage dwindled. Every time someone made a mistake, the emcee would ring a bell, like the kind you touch when you’re waiting at a counter.

Ding!

That tinny ring was the sound of death.

Eventually there were only four or five of us left. I was one. Kevin was one. Keith was one. Every time I answered another word correctly, Keith would give a knowing nod, silently cheering me on. Upon each visit to the microphone I had become more emboldened and was beginning to enjoy the home stretch. My victory lap. This is what it feels like to not be scared all the time, I thought. Finally. Because even though I had always been too shy to ever tell anyone, I knew one day I would overcome my fear and show my real self to the world. This day was the first step. The next could be the city Spelling Bee, and who knew what might happen after that?

I approached the microphone. I could see my mom in the audience. My heart was no longer galloping. The emcee read a word and I knew it immediately, another baby word. She read the word to me and somehow I thought of green stalks reaching toward the sky, of cobs spilling forth from them, I thought of that darkish yellow color you see in the 64-pack of crayons, the one with the sharpener in the back. The word rhymed with haze and blaze and faze and raze, but I wasn’t about to be fooled, because no word in the Bee could possibly be that easy. After all those hours of studying there was no way I would be presented with a word of only four letters, so rather than be outsmarted I confidently spelled the word I saw in my head, a word with five letters, a word like this:

D-A-I-Z-E

I was already walking back to my seat when I heard the sound, the death sound.

Ding!

I looked into the crowd and found my mother and the look of anguish was almost too much to take. I left the stage and lurched toward a seat below, my head swimming, fuzzy, barely able to see anything because I was in a daze.

Daze.

Daze.

Daze.

It only occurred to me later that I could have asked for a definition because “daze” is a homophone that shares its sound with the word “days.” Had I asked for a definition I would have immediately known how to spell it, because of course I knew what “daze” meant. I don’t know what the hell I thought “daize” was. All I know is I was too confident and too proud, I was looking to run before I first caught the ball, so I heard “daze” and I thought “maize” and I did not win the Spelling Bee.

My mom was gracious and consoled me even though I didn’t win. My friends were kind enough about it. Everyone was kind. But I knew, like they all knew, that I had blown my chance to win, had blown my chance to climb higher in the pecking order, and it was a bitter pill I could not swallow for a long time afterward.

I don’t remember what the winning word was, or how he fared in the city Bee, but I do remember Keith looking at me with a half grin on his face, almost embarrassed to be the last man standing in this long walk, the winner again, and me barely able to see him, my head lost in a white, shapeless daze.

* * *

P.S. Here’s a school photo of us. This is from second grade, not sixth, so we’re all a bit younger and shorter and perhaps more awkward. But at least you get the idea.