If one ever needed evidence that my father loved his barbecue above all other manly vices, then only a visual of the man cleaning his grill was evidence enough of that.
In early spring, my father baptised the change in season by spreading charcoal dust and rust over the lawn, a powder he claimed made good fertilizer; my stepmother didn’t agree.
It was on a Sunday in the Spring of 1999 that my father told me to get out of my pyjamas and help him, I was 13 years old. (I remember being surprised that he noticed me. When my father took to a task he focused solely on what he was doing, his gaze never wandering astray. This time he was distracted, this time, I distracted him.)
When I reached my father’s side he was hunched over scraping metal, the green grass over where he worked an industrial orange and black.
“These flame plates need to be scrapped clean. You see all of the shit stuck on there? That’s grease and fat. If it stays there it’ll catch on fire and you get flare-ups that will burn your meat. So get a metal brush and some scouring pads and scrape em hard. It’s the same with life kid, as the years cook you, your heart and your soul get filled with crap. You get a bad mark on a test, teacher yells at you, some kid makes fun of ya, or if your girl dumps you, you need to scrape that shit off yourself-sometimes once a month, sometimes every morning.”
My father told me this without once looking up at me, he scraped through it all. He continued. “As for the grills, it’s best not to clean em too much. Just a simple scrape with your wire brush is enough. The more you use your grills the more seasoned they become, you know what seasoned means son?”
This time he looked at me, and something in his eyes told me it was better not to lie to him, so I nodded no.
“Seasoned means that all of the oil and grease from the food makes your grills non-stick. The more you use your grill, the less your food will stick to the grill, and trust me kid, that’s a good thing. It happens to people too the older they get. The more bullshit life throws at you, the harder you get, the less that bullshit sticks to you. You gotta learn not to carry all of the worry, stress and dead weight life will pile on you, let it slide off of ya kid, it ain’t yours to own, it’s yours to get rid of, you hear what I’m saying to ya?”
My father reached out, grabbed me by the chin, and positioned my face so my eyes met his. “It ain’t yours to own boy.”
“I hear you Pop.”
My father looked at me for a few seconds, contemplating my soul for any dead weight. He let go of me and continued.
“Next thing you want to check is your propane regulator. The regulator is this U.F.O looking apparatus that attaches to your propane tank. The propane regulator regulates the flow of propane gas from the tank to your grill. Sometimes the regulator gets stuck and the gas doesn’t flow enough, that’s when you get that low flame that won’t heat worth a damn. All you got to do is unscrew the hose from the propane tank and open all the valves on your BBQ, turn all the dials to max. Let them be for a couple of minutes. This empties any gas stuck inside your burners. Now, reconnect the propane tank, close all your BBQ valves to off, and very slowly open the propane tank until completely opened. Turn one of your dials to max and ignite. That should do the trick. If your flame is still low, try all that again, if it doesn’t work, change your regulator. There’s another lesson for you son. Like this here regulator, you need to control what you let in: Anger, fear, hate, you need to regulate those emotions. Don’t let too much of that in you, and if it does get in, get rid of it as fast as you can.”
My father didn’t talk much to me after that. He began to put his BBQ back together as if I wasn’t just part of his world, as if we hadn’t just shared a moment. My father had become good at regulating what he let in, and the emotions associated with me was one of the things in his life he regulated best. I reckon that had something to do with my Birthmother.
My biological mother used to say that I was good in her womb. That nine months wasn’t enough. She accused my father of taking me out to soon. “It ain’t enough time for no baby. That’s why they come out of their Mama’s belly with the chord. The chord feeds that baby but it’s also a way for that child to get back in.” She used to say over and over, sometimes just to me as if it were our own sworn secret. The last words she told me just before she was committed were, “you didn’t climb back in, you didn’t climb back in.”
That was many years ago and I’m a father of my own now. I see now how my father tried to shield me from any ownership handed to me by my mother’s last words. But his over-protectiveness blurred many lines for me. I’ll never know if my father simply wanted to show me how to maintain a BBQ, or if he was afraid I would go through life without knowing how to do something.
(The title of this short story inspired by Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M Pirsig. A book I read when I was 14 and which has stayed with me ever since.)