Start Again


In the early summer of 1998, Orlando, Florida was surrounded by wildfires. For several days you could not leave the city, by car or by plane. The air was thick with smoke. Sometimes you could feel the heat of the flames even over the regular heat of that particularly warm summer. Everything seemed to be on fire.

It was also the summer I seemed to be on fire. After arriving in Orlando in October of 1997, I slowly began to introduce myself. In the beginning I spent time with friends I met through friends of mine in New Hampshire. I slowly introduced myself to the concept of regularly stopping by a restaurant that was completely out of my way to have a few drinks and talk to the bartenders and waitresses. It was something I struggled with on many fronts, as I wasn't much getting the punchline of my life at that point. As was later put into simple terms by a particular waitress, "You died and came back from the dead in order to go to Chili's." I've always believed life was absurd. This was just really kind of pushing the envelope.

By the spring of 1998, everyone in that particular Chili's knew my story. In 1994 I had decided to kill myself, after a long and painful struggle with an inability to trust other people and to believe in myself. The experience of that night had caused me to have a series of dreams that told me to find a particular blonde woman and that it would then all come clear to me. Eventually. The story was strange in and of itself, but no one in the place seemed to think there was anything odd about it. In fact, I was the only one who actually made fun of me because of it. Everyone there wanted to believe me, and they went out of their way to find evidence of the truth behind my experience, to the point of showing me the place had actually started being built the day after my suicide. I imagined in some way it made the experience special, rather than just a mundane job working in a mundane restaurant with mundane customers. For me it was far from mundane, but for them it meant something as well.

That same summer I was "hired" by the assistant manager, a diminutive woman who was often my comedic foil, to walk each and every waitress to her car at the end of the night. It seemed there had been a rash of robberies of restaurants and bars in the area that included robbing waitresses as they went to their cars at the end of the night. Why they thought I would be effective at this sort of thing, I am uncertain, but in the end, that Chili's was the only restaurant in the area that reported no robberies. Everyone else was hit at least twice.

It might have had something to do with the ice cream. I worked for Haagen Dazs that summer, and I had the ability to come up with cases of Haagen Dazs pints whenever there was a reason or a cause. The first time I met this firebrand of an assistant manager, she was studying me closely from the other end of the bar. The stories had found their way to her and she was very suspicious of this character who hung out at her bar. On paper it appeared I was there stalking one of her employees and now everyone on staff appeared inclined to buy me drinks. Nothing about the situation appeared right to her. Then she met me.

The first thing I did was complain about the nachos. It wasn't what she was expecting.

"This whole city is surrounded by a ring of fire and you can't go outside without choking on the smoke and you're concerned about the damned nachos?"

"There just doesn't seem to be much to them. And that awesome blossom thing, it is absurd."

"Okay, first of all, do you want a big freaking pile of chips, 'cause I can get you one of those. That's all them other places do, ya know, they just pile chips on your plate and stuff a little meat here and a little cheese here and you think you hit the motherlode. Here, we give you something better, so if you don't like it, well I'll tell you what you can do with it. As far as the awesome blossom, do you have any idea what the profit margin is on those things? It makes up for the assholes we have at the bar drinking for free because my staff keeps accidently forgetting to charge them."

"I like these nachos just fine, actually, but I'm still never going to order an awesome blossom."

"I asked Tina if you were bothering her, you know."

"What did she say?"

"She asked me to please not make you leave. I think that is kind of strange, don't you?"

"This whole thing is kind of strange to me."

"The city is on fire and some dirtbags are holding up every restaurant on OBT. If I let you eat for free, can you stick around long enough to walk the girls out at the end of the night?"

"I have to be at work in the morning."

"Give me a break, dead guy, we're not open that late. Jesus. Do you want the job or not?"

I brought her three cases of Haagen Dazs pints the next day.

"You are the most harmless crazy man I've ever met, and I've met a lot of crazy people."

"I have my moments."

"You know, I watch you all the time. It is kind of my job to watch the people who come here to stalk my bartenders."

"How am I doing?"

"I can't figure you out. Tina said she likes having you here, which is crazy in and of itself, but you haven't even noticed how much my other girls hang all over you. It must be the long hair."

The fires seemed to burn longer than the news reports I read now tell me they lasted. At one point we had to evacuate Haagen Dazs. Our warehouse manager wouldn't leave the building. There were several million dollars worth of ice cream in our giant freezer and somehow he felt he could protect it. He was crazy like that. We all were. Apopka, where we were, was too close to the ring of fire. When the metal recycling plant next to us caught fire and the magnesium started to burn, it appeared to be over for us. Apparently magnesium burns so hot you can't put it out by the usual methods. We all got a chance to get out of work early that day, once we got past the ring of reporters who wanted a good sound bite for the evening news. We went to Hooters. We always did.

The memories of that summer rank as the highest of my life, and at times I look back to contemplate why and how I could possibly find myself in such a good place again. Part of it was having a good job where I felt appreciated and loved, where getting a good days work done early got us out early and to the bar as long as we understood that sometimes the work would require us to stick around half the night. There was hardly a regular schedule, and I was in charge of coordinating all the deliveries, so when something went wrong, I was in the crosshairs. Even when things got difficult and we were fighting to maintain control, the boss would appear from his upstairs office, walk into the bullpen and casually tell us, "It's only ice cream." That was when we knew it was time to accept our limitations. I wish I'd had more jobs like that.

It was the summer that I came to realize I was exactly where I needed to be. I was where I belonged. I was home. There were problems, though. The job was only a temporary position, although they repeatedly told me they wished I could stay on indefinitely. I was covering for the regular person, who had trained me and who was a very nice person, and she was out for nine months due to a particularly difficult pregnancy. She would return, and this job was everything to her. It was everything to me for completely different reasons.

The ice cream never melted. The magnesium fire was kept under control. Eventually the ring of fire was brought under control as well. Things changed quickly.

The ring of fire, you see, caused the sky to turn to gold. It was part of the whole "prophesy" and the dream sequence. You will have no doubt and the sky will turn to gold. That summer was special. I remember one afternoon, after getting out of work at Haagen Dazs early and bringing a case of mixed pints by Chili's, the sky had turned to gold in such a way that it was impossible to ignore. It caused me to drive to "my church" as quickly as possible. I walked in and found the place empty. There was no one eating in the dining room. There was no one at the bar. There was only one waitress sitting at the bar, looking bored and indifferent.

"The sky has turned to gold. Is Tina working?"

"Why do you always ask about her? Don't you ever notice anything right in front of your face?" replied the waitress.

"Well, I just figured, the sky..."

"I'm the only one here right now. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"

Her name was Tammy. I disappointed her. There is a certain curse associated with being frighteningly oblivious in the face of being dangerously omnipotent. I have no shortage of muses. Of this I am certain.

Love Is A Burning Thing
And It Makes A Fiery Ring
Bound By Wild Desire
I Fell Into A Ring Of Fire

I Fell Into A Burning Ring Of Fire
I Went Down, Down, Down
And The Flames Went Higher

And It Burns, Burns, Burns
The Ring Of Fire
The Ring Of Fire

I Fell Into A Burning Ring Of Fire
I Went Down, Down, Down
And The Flames Went Higher

And It Burns, Burns, Burns
The Ring Of Fire
The Ring Of Fire

The Taste Of Love Is Sweet
When Hearts Like Ours Meet
I Fell For You Like A Child
Oh, But The Fire Went Wild


Lyrics copyright June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore, somewhere along the lines.
Used within reasonable fair use standards.

"Indian Summer" pipelink relates to song of that name by The Doors. Usual disclaimers apply.

They really did play the song
every time they did the fire updates on the radio.