If It Wants to Break

Katherine Zlabek
Photograph by Alex Moliski on Unsplash

Before the oven broke in a decisive way, my sister was telling me a story about the Knights of Columbus and a bag of bones. It was the night before Thanksgiving. We were tending to a spaghetti dinner for eight on the stovetop. Garlic bread shimmered with butter in the oven’s light. The deer hunt had opened the previous weekend, and the four hunters in the family had downed two doe. No antlers, poorly shot, and who had killed which was contested. The hunters milled around the edges of the kitchen, drinking Schlitz and mulled wine, trying to solve the problem of not having killed the right things in the right way.

Opening weekend, a mere five days before, a family-wide multi-year ban on politics-as-conversation had been violated. The conversation concluded when a sibling declared that liberal arts professors were a burden on the system, polluters of young minds. She strode across the kitchen linoleum to throw down a paper napkin balled up with grease from a frozen pizza. The napkin sat on the countertop with bated breath wondering, with the rest of the family, what would happen next.

I am a professor who often wonders when I’ll next be declared irrelevant. Before the oven broke, I thought of Hamlet for five days. Poison being poured in a loved one’s ear while they slept. Surely, that was what had happened, otherwise certain things would not have been said.


Before the oven guttered the house with smoke, at the stove, in a skillet, I broke apart a five-pound block of ground beef with a plastic spatula. It was mostly frozen, butchered off the family lot and kept for months in a freezer—in case of disaster or hardship or dinner. My sister told me about the room just off the gymnasium in the little Catholic grade school we’d both gone to. The room was called the library, but served every miscellaneous use. Our coaches would store basketballs and jump ropes along one wall. Bookshelves were built into two walls and held Judy Blume and Sweet Valley High and many books on the suffering of saints. An elderly nun held music class in there weekly, taught us the recorder, and guided us in acting out Peter and the Wolf with lengths of jingle bells wrapped around our wrists and ankles. Sometimes, a teacher would set two chairs on the far end of the room and a priest held confession there, under the bald lights. While one of us confessed, the rest of the class stood outside in a line, anxious about composing their sins: I’m just going to tell him I’ve not been nice to my mother.

The Knights of Columbus used the room for their secret meetings.

“And one night,” my sister told me, “our coach walked in for a basketball while the lead Knight was preparing for a meeting. The guy yelled at her, she fled, and her face was ghost-white. She said she saw a cloth running down the table, and the man was placing a skull and all sorts of other bones along the center.”

“The lead Knight,” I said. “Who was that?” The hamburger was thawing, and danced gray and greasy in the skillet as I worked it.

I had thought of Hamlet for five days, and then I had a full coffee cup of Mogen David and decided our relationship would survive through distractions and nonsense. So what if she thought my work was worse than worthless. I had split wood with this woman. She was the one who taught me how to back-comb and Aqua Net a steer’s hind legs for the county fair. Together, we had stayed up late into summer nights, reading the Judy Blume we checked out from the library. I loved this woman too much.

“The thin one who always sold Tootsie Rolls after church for lost children and little red poppies for veterans.”

“Hank Stohl?” I asked. I picked up a paper plate my mother kept near the microwave for covering food. It was thick with splatter from many microwaved meals, and I wondered whether I could pitch it without being noticed.

“No. The one with the white collar who was always stiff, like he’d broken his back.”

“Collar as in a neck brace, or collar as in the priest?”

“I don’t think Hank was thin enough to be the guy I’m remembering.”

“He was thin for here. Thin for us,” I said. This was Wisconsin.

My sister and I talked about not remembering this man for as long as possible. We kept talking about the Knights of Columbus like a stone skipping, attempting to keep the water still, on a topic as far from us as could be.

“They ran gambling, you know, for a Lenten fundraiser,” she said. “Isn’t that strange? I’ve always thought that was strange. Gambling during Lent.”

“Sounds very Catholic.”

“They bought video footage of horse races and played it in the library. Everyone placed bets on the horses and drank Tom & Jerry mix. Then there was a fish fry in the gymnasium.”

I flushed with nostalgia, thinking that there had once been a market for old horse-racing footage, that watching it had been exciting. I imagined the shelf that held the VHSs and tried to imagine how each was labeled. The church had probably made less than five hundred dollars that night and had likely been pleased by the proceeds. There was such innocence during the time my sister and I had been young that I wanted to cry.

My sister took my silence as disbelief. She hollered to my father to verify.

“Yeah,” he said, as he often did about the past. “That’s just something we used to do.”


Before the oven broke, I had my doubts the family would weather the holiday. I was not a hunter, but I envied the hunters, hunkered along leaf-strewn gulches or perched in their midair shanties. I craved the clear cold air that circulated through the gaps in their focus, between the yards and acres that separated them. I wanted that moment in the truck bed when they would huddle around the trophy buck for a photo, a halo in orange, every hand touching an antler, the deer’s tongue out and to the side as though he were in on the fun. The catharsis of gutting something to the backbone, the sweaty relief of hauling it up the hill, the red that stuck like jelly to their four-buckle boots.

Instead, the women brewed inside, avoided conversation and eye contact. My sister put something Jane Austen-y on the TV while we paced and looked out the window and watched the deer dance across the front yard and escape down the driveway. We asked one another, “Did you hear that? Was that a shot?” We cared about the hunters, but we also just wanted to know how to time the evening meal.

The meal was spaghetti. Spaghetti was too simple. It couldn’t save a family. It offered no real distraction, no flow state of chopping or kneading. Sauce from a jar. The garlic bread was premade, frozen, required only being broken in half and spread open on a baking sheet and placed into the oven.

But there was hope: my sister went to take out the loaves and shrieked when she opened the door. It banged shut. A single cloud of smoke hovered over the stovetop. We grew quiet. The deer hunters continued their conversation, undaunted.

Through the oven’s window, I saw a small fire burning. My sister grabbed a hot pad and tried to open the door again. It was locked. She whispered to me, “It’s locked.” For my mother’s blood pressure, we had learned at a young age to whisper about all kitchen calamities.

Smoke rose from the oven’s back. No one noted the smoke, no one violated this pact of silence. I pressed the lock/unlock button. This only locked the oven in another way. I pressed it again and unlocked it in that other way. I tugged at the door. The temperature amped up to full heat. We watched it rise to over five hundred degrees. It was as though we were in a horror novel about a vengeful oven. I turned on the oven’s light and saw the garlic bread briquettes ablaze. We had been given a miracle-grade problem.


While the bread burned, my mother found the owner’s manual—it was stacked under a framed photo of nuns smoking—and gave it to my brother-in-law. She believed male intervention was called for, but my father is hard of hearing, my partner was not married into the family, my nephew was on TikTok, lazing on the couch’s thinning upholstery, and so it seemed to us he needed more help than he could offer.

My brother-in-law sat on a wooden stool at the kitchen counter and looked at the manual carefully for a full minute before saying, “Well, Connie, I’m not sure this is in English.”

“Flip it over,” I said, my sister said, my mother said.

He did.

My partner Googled a copy of the owner’s manual, and the two of us stood over the oven and began troubleshooting. He would read a suggestion from the manual and I would say, “I tried that,” which didn’t satisfy him. Then I would demonstrate to him—by pressing a series of buttons and tugging the oven’s one lever—how that suggestion didn’t work. My brother-in-law then found the right place in the manual my mother had handed to him. He read the directions—the same my partner had read. I said, “I tried that.” I wiped my forehead with the hot pad and then tossed it on the counter. Across the smoke-filled kitchen, our eyes met. The directions were our only hope. He reread them. I pushed the series of buttons and tugged the oven’s one lever. Nothing.

My father sat at the kitchen table and said, “It should either work, or it should not work. It should not be doing this.”

The smoke was dense, and the dog was getting worried, despite being the lowest to the ground. My sister and I opened the windows in the kitchen and the living room. The night was still and cold. There was no cross breeze. From the guest room, I took a little pink fan, six inches in diameter. My sister and I had used the fan in our youth. We had propped it on a folding chair, beside a double bed we occasionally shared, before we could imagine any life with an air conditioner in it. The old farmhouse we grew up in depended on box fans, oscillating fans, frozen Twix bars and green grapes in the summer heat. My brother would clean the fans each summer at the kitchen table with Q-tips, Safeguard suds, and rubbing alcohol.

Once the fan was plugged in, I guided the smoke from its source to the nearest window, which was lined with rocks we brought my mother from our travels. One rock had googly eyes pasted onto it. It was from the county fair. It had cost me a nickel.

I asked my father, loudly, over the multiple false solutions being shouted through the air, “Is this really the only fan you and Mom own these days?” In the heat of our old lives, the fans would blow all around us, covering any quiet, circulating the heavy air. We relied on them.

“We shouldn’t need fans. If the oven wants to break, it should just break. Or work. That would be better.”

Even hitting the breaker would not unlock the door. The bread continued to burn. Smoke rose in a sheet, a waterfall in reverse, the earth’s elements confused. Because nothing was working, we decided to act as though nothing was happening.

It was the night before Thanksgiving, and the rest of the night’s meal had been prepared: spaghetti and meat sauce and a box of spinach salad, which my family continued to purchase at the holidays year after year, along with one can of Dole fruit cocktail, because I had once been vegan and they couldn’t imagine I’d be able to eat anything but plain spinach and canned fruit cocktail.

We sat at the table with heavy smoke over our heads and ate with the enthusiasm that only a problem can bring.

“It appears to be a safety mechanism,” my partner said and put his phone away. He then became the first person in the history of my family to eat the fruit salad.

“That makes sense,” my brother-in-law agreed. “It got too hot in there, and the safety mechanism clicked into place. We probably have to wait until it cools down for it to unlock.”

Because they were not born into the family, or because they had already been in a diagnostic mode from their hunting, they smelled only smoke and saw only a broken oven. I smelled a metaphor.

The air would not clear, and I didn’t suspect that it would until the bread was ashes.

“Bad wiring,” my partner said. “Maybe a bad computer chip.”

“Dad,” I said, “was Hank Stohl the lead Knight? Was he the guy in charge of setting up the meetings, the horse racing?”

“No, I think he just did the Tootsie Rolls. I sold them with him sometimes.” He leaned back in his chair, which uttered a loud squeak.

“I can’t believe you were ever in that cult,” my mother said, just now starting to stew about the oven, and not knowing what to do about her anger.

“See?” my sister said. “I told you they all placed bets. Isn’t that weird? And during Lent!”

My partner raised his voice and leaned over to my father. “Denny. After we eat, we should turn on the breaker and see if the oven will unlock.”

“It should just work,” my father said. “Or it should break. This in-between stuff is illogical.”

It didn’t seem like we would need to talk about politics the next day. The story could even last through to the next year and the next, saving us from ourselves far into the future.


An hour later, with the power restored, the oven unlocked, but promptly began to overheat again.

“Hit the breaker,” I yelled downstairs. “Hit it again! Off!”

This is all to say, we got the bread out, and it was a shell of itself, ash and yet stuck to the sheet perhaps eternally. We took a photo of my sister posing with it in her pale-yellow sweatshirt and the same brambled ponytail of her youth. She held it to the side as if it were a horseracing trophy won for a contest that happened years ago. For the kids who were on their phones that night, and the family who wasn’t yet there, that is the story. They will remember her smile, the bread, a triumph paired with a loss.

Katherine Zlabek’s story collection, When, is available from The Ohio State University Press. Her stories and essays have appeared in Boulevard, Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, and other journals.