Imagine you’re on your couch, just a little stoned and watching TV when the munchies set in, so you head to the kitchen in search of food. Green grapes are the world’s greatest munchie food. Each little orb is an explosion of sweet and sour juices, cold and bite-sized, and even qualifies as “good for you.” But you don’t have any grapes. You travel too much for perishable snacks, so the only things in your pantry are cans of beans and other shelf-stable insta-foods. You grab a cup-noodle and move to pop it into the microwave when an echo of the dignity you once had needles you for something more. You look at the cup-noodle and realize that if you’re going to debase yourself by savaging this sodium bomb, you should at least spare yourself the shame of microwaving it. You’re an adult, and adults boil their water on a stove.
As you turn to the stove and reach for a small pot, you notice your roommate’s tea kettle. Ahah! You think to yourself. Its sexy brushed steel body and classic kettle design should help you recapture almost enough dignity to call yourself a functioning adult. You grab it, admiring its form and modern details. Lifting it towards the sink, the word “mechanical” pops into your mind, free of context and fleeting.
You open the top and begin to fill it under the faucet, careful to fill it with only enough water to fill the styrofoam cup, too much and your precious munchies will have to wait whole seconds longer before they start to cook. At last it comes to the right amount and muscle memory takes over. The switch on the electric stove gets turned to the “HIGH” and you set the kettle down and leave it, turning to take a seat at the kitchen table and tend to your phone while you wait.
Boiling the water doesn’t take long. You forget about it, but the whole point of the kettle is to signal you when it’s ready. You notice steam filling the dining room. More steam than usual, but still you wait for the whistle. A moment later the haze is getting thick and you smell something burning. Oh great. I’ve burned the water. You think to yourself as you get up. You turn to the kitchen while marveling at the inordinate amount of steam. You think of the times you’ve left pasta unattended and it boiled down and burned at the bottom of the pot. This is so weird, you think, I don’t normally burn the water. Wait, how do you burn water?
Then you see the flames crawling out from underneath the kettle and licking the sides and spewing thick black smoke into the air of the kitchen. The kind of smoke you get from plastic garbage. The kettle isn’t a kettle. It’s an electric water boiler, with a (now flaming) plastic base. You scream inside your own head. Fire! One stupid mistake while you’re high and now this! What do you do? Think!
Water. The sink has water.
You’re in hero mode.
You reach through the flames and grab the plastic handle. It’s all so obvious now, you’ve gone and embarrassed yourself something fierce. Better get this fire snuffed out before your roommates notice.
As you spin around to toss it into the kettle into the sink, the centrifugal force of your turn sends flaming plastic napalm in a wide 180º streak, sticking to the walls and door of the kitchen and setting alight everything it touches. No sooner than the flaming kettle lands safely in the pile of dirty dishes does all hell break loose. The burner on the stove erupts, with 18” flames climbing up towards the hood above the range in a bloom. It looks like an upside down rocket engine. Your lizard brain recoils from the danger while the last vestiges of your sober mind crosses its arms and shakes its head at you, pointing to a distant memory of a 3rd grade science lesson:
Fire takes three ingredients: heat, fuel, and oxygen.
Sitting on the stove, only the edges of the plastic base could burn, but when you lifted it up, the oxygen rushed in to meet the melted plastic on the coil and ignited. The flames, now 24” high and licking the hood over the stove are threatening the cabinets. Fear is taking over. You scream: “Shit!” You scream again: “Help!” There’s no hiding this from the roommates, now.
How do you put out a kitchen fire? Well, that’s more of a fourth grade lesson, but the answer is pot lids. That’s what you’ve always been told. When a grease fire lights up in a pan, you can’t spray water on it, you have to smother it, normally with a lid. Are there any lids nearby? You look around. No lids, but there’s a dish towel. Towels work, right? If someone is on fire you smother them with a blanket or a jacket. Same principle! Time to hero up!
You bring the dish towel down hard on the flames like a soldier covering a grenade with his helmet. In a second the flames are gone and a wave of calm begins to wash over you. You’re a hero, even if you’ve rescued nothing but your facade of being a responsible adult. The horror show is over.
But like every horror movie, the monster is never easily slain. The hero must be humbled, his hubris snuffed.
You watch, helpless as a small hole opens up on the towel and its edges begin to glow and burn outward. The stove is still on high.
(Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.)
You pull the towel, now smeared in petro-fuel and alight, off the burner and throw it to the ground. You reach around the column of flame and switch the burner off when Murphy’s law once again kicks you hard in the stomach:
The stove is electric. Your entire apartment building will burn to the ground before it stops glowing red.
Oh my god, you think. All your neighbors. You see the flames, white hot at the base and orange and black as they tickle the hood. The cabinets are next. The adrenaline in your system mixes with the marijuana forming a toxic stew of the worst fears your imagination can conjure up. You quickly chart the course of the flames in your mind. First the hood, then the cabinets, then the walls. This hundred year old building, built with plaster and wooden lathe, is a tinder box. That’s what the owner had joked when you moved in. It’s one of those buildings where the elevator door is just an accordion grate that threatens to take your hand off if you’re not paying attention. Do you call 911 and ring the alarm or do you put the fire out? Is there even a fire escape in this building?
“Help! Help!” you cry out. The hero is dead. You spin around, again looking for a pot lid, knocking things to the ground as you reach for anything that could serve.
At last your roommate Zack arrives, finding the kitchen filled with smoke and heat and dancing light. His first words are simple: “Oh shit!” he exclaims, then he heroes up, yelling, “Salt! Where’s the salt! We need salt!”
Seeds of thought fight against each other in your head for dwindling cognitive resources. Would salt really work? It makes sense. You did a report on solar technology in college. Salt is used as a heat sink for reflective arrays because it doesn’t burn and it doesn’t boil. It’s… “flame retardant.” Don’t you have something like that?
Something red? It’s like a long, red metal cylinder.
“The… the.. the THING!” You cry out, trying to remember its name. A spark of joy cuts through the fear when you realizing what you’re looking for, you can see it in your head. “Where’s the thing?” you shout, shaking your hands in the air to encourage the right word to fall out of your mouth.
Zack is tearing open cupboards, “Where’s the big one?!” He’s still looking for salt.
“No, we have a thing!” You yell, “We have the thing—you know, designed for this exact moment? It’s for fire–” (Ahah!) “FIRE EXTINGUISHER! Where’s the fire extinguisher!?”
You scan for the color red. There, next to the sink. You snatch it and point it at the flames. I hope this works, you think to yourself as you squeeze down on the handle.
You squeeze again and still, nothing.
In an emergency, all your incompetencies are instantly converted to fear.
“What the fuck!?” You scream, demoralized.
You see the red plastic pin you forgot to pull while you rushed into things. This has to happen every time a fire extinguisher gets used. Someone presses the handle, nothing happens, they yell out, “God damn it!” pull the pin and then save the day. You think back to your time in the war and wonder how many grenades were thrown at the enemy with the pin still intact.
You pull the pin and Zack stands back as you point and squeeze. Still, nothing. Now the smoke alarm is going off in the hallway. You squeeze again. Nothing. “What the fuck is the matter with this thing!” you yell.
It’s about this time that your roommate Cyrus walks in to find the kitchen a ring of fire, with you and Zack flailing around in the middle, banging a fire extinguisher on the counter, yelling at it and smacking it like the monkeys from that famous scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Cyrus is on the phone and begins describing the scene to whomever is on the line, grinning all the while.
Still struggling with the fire extinguisher, you reach inside yourself and gather your wits for a two-second burst concentration. You squeeze it a heavy pin beneath the handle that depresses ever so slightly but not enough. You realize that you just aren’t squeezing hard enough, so you give it all you got, and cloud of dust erupts from the nozzle up and into the air. You take control of the extinguisher with both hands and bring its aim on target, like a firefighter manning a hose.
The massive flames disappear in an instant, but you give it half a second to make sure the monster is really dead. It is.
Then you turn to the floor. This whole time the dish rags have been burning on the floor next to the trash can. You give them a good blast. Someone says, “You got one more in the sink.” and you smother the kettle. That steel kettle. You can see the switch on the side of the handle. You remember thinking the word “mechanical” when you first picked it up, before forgetting it.
Cyrus, still on the phone, still smiling, turns back to his room and breaks from his phone call only long enough to say, “The door’s on fire.” before shutting himself inside.
You give one last blast to the napalm stuck to the door and then the kitchen is suddenly quiet. The air is thick with fine particles of god-knows-what-chemical dust. It looks like a small snow drift blew into the kitchen, piling up in the corners and edges. Like those pictures from Chernobyl, where the people just heard a siren and fled with their shirts on their backs, leaving everything in place, and decades of dust have accumulated in silence.
Zack laughs and asks what happened. That’s when you have to own it. Your stupidity. And as you explain it, the adrenaline fades and strips bare the horror and the shame of the truth: You got high and put an electric kettle on a hot stove. While you were fighting the fire, your whole life flashed before your eyes, but not the one you lived, the one you would have had to live after. You live on the second floor so you would have escaped, but your tinderbox of a building is seven stories of 100-year-old wood. Your flaming apartment is on the bottom, right against the singular wooden stairwell.
Even if nobody got hurt, you’d still be forever famous as the moron who burned down his house by putting a electric kettle on the stove. You’d see yourself getting lampooned by Bill Maher on Real Time, not only for being stupid, but for setting back the legal weed movement ten years. Oh, you want to be a journalist? Good luck. This is what comes up when people google you. Every job interview. Every blind date. You would never escape it.
But it’s not your fault, you’ll say. But why should anyone believe you? When the world thinks of an electric water boiler, they picture those cheap and bulky pieces of plastic crap that you see in every european kitchen, not a round, shiny steel kettle. When someone decided to design a high-end water boiler that was intended to look and feel like the real thing, all but for the little switch on the handle, did they foresee this? Too late to wonder that now.
Every blogger and journo and editor writing about you will include some stock photo of what is unmistakably a kitchen appliance, right next to a picture of Derek Zoolander saying, “The files are IN the computer!” before he smashes it to the ground. No amount of protest will convince them that it wasn’t you.
But it wasn’t you. It was that damned kettle.