I threw off my apron, put on my winter jacket, grabbed the tips from my cup, and exited the Dunn Bros. Coffeehouse. I had just spent the last ten minutes of my shift showing some crazed paintings of mine to Michael Moen, a kindly old artist. Mike is a composer of surreal images. His work is on a level of color and vibrancy which I aspire to reach some day. In the meantime, I throw my stuff onto the passenger seat of my car and take off for home.
A mile down the main stretch of the city and my car begins to rattle violently. My first thought is that my laziness in getting the oil changed has finally caught up with me – my engine is about to commit mechanical suicide. Then it dawns on me that it isn’t the engine. It’s my front, driver’s side tire, which has gone immaculately flat. Months of driving around on a leaking tire, and re-filling it with air, ad infinitum, combined with my cheap refusal to shell out the cash for a new tire, has resulted in this present predicament.
The car shook as the rim touched pavement. I wasn’t about to pull over and bother someone for roadside emergency. So at the risk of further damaging my rim, I drove the pathetic hunk of metal the last mile home.
When Tessandra arrived home, I drove her car to Wal-Mart and purchased the required tire. We went out into the cold night (it is already dark out by five in the evening this time of year) and couldn’t fit the jack under the car to even allow for a lift point. It turns out that one can’t change a tire if the vehicle is still on the ground. Who knew? We head back inside.
Because I obviously know nothing about fixing cars, I call up my old man, the erudite mechanic.
“Hi, Dad,” I said.
“I blew my tire.”
“It’s parked on our street in front of the house right now and Tessandra and I can’t get the jack under the car.”
“OK. What I would do,” he said, not without an overly serious undertone, “is grab yourself some two by four’s, drive the car onto those. That will give you an inch and a half, to two inches of clearance to fit the jack underneath your car. Understand?”
“Yeah, sure. Makes sense.”
“Alright? So you do that, then….you got a lug wrench, right?”
“Yeah we do. Well, Tess has one.”
“That’s fine. I’m pretty sure your car has ¾ lug nuts. I know your car has ¾ lug nuts. So that’s the size socket you’re going to use. Once you have the car parked on the two by fours, you place the jack at a decent connect point. Make sure you don’t place it in any obviously rusty areas –you’re not stupid, you know that. A good connect point is the cradle, which you’ll see if you just look, or the unibody…
Unibody? I pondered.
He said if we had any more trouble to give him a call.
Tuesday. I am reading and writing in my warm home. All is well, except that I am missing my writer’s meeting due to my lack of working transportation. I’ve thought about what my dad has said about using the two by fours. Seems like the perfect solution. I put on my old man slippers and go out into the freezing garage. I take a hammer to a wooden palate that’s been hanging around, collecting dust for many months. I provide numerous blows, none of them very effective. After about five minutes of pounding away at the palate, I toss away the hammer.
My eye is drawn to the rusty bonfire bin we haven’t used in years. I fish two pieces of wood out of there, each about three feet long and an inch thick. Perfect! Now to attach them together into a functional prop. I hunt around for some nails. Can’t find any that are long enough. I look around for some duct tape. No luck there either. Damn! A roll of blue masking tape sits atop Tess’ tool box. I consider using it, but I know it won’t hold. Then I remember the packing tape sitting on the office desk. That should do the trick! I run inside, grab it, and tape together the two kindling pieces into a workable prop.
When Tessandra arrived home from work that day, she put a pan of pork chops and cream of mushroom soup into the oven for dinner. Then we bundled ourselves up in our winter gear. Tess in black, bulky snow pants, two shirts, a hoodie, a coat, another coat, a hat, gloves, scarf. I put on my brown corduroy jacket, then a coat over that, plus a stocking cap and gloves. We walk out into the cold night with the jack, jack-stands, tire-iron, the taped-together wood prop (of which I am beginning to doubt my craftsmanship) and a tiny flash light.
Tess takes the wood prop, situates it under the shredded tire. “Okay, let’s give ‘er a shot,” she says.
I turn the keys and the ol’ Chevy Cavalier starts up fine – a good thing. I put it into drive and slowly approach the prop. It merely slides upon the icy ground.
“Too slow, hon. Try again!”
I try again. Not quite.
“Back up! Again.”
I follow her instructions, and, the third time is the charm. We’ve got the vehicle on the prop. I set it in park and kill the engine. Now for the nitty gritty. Tess and I get down on our knees and arms. She gets on her back with the jack. For the first time we are both truly seeing the damage dealt by eighteen years of pure Wisconsin rust. One easy swipe of a hand beneath the undercarriage and ruddy flakes fall to the ground. An image of beautiful snowflakes come to my mind – falling rust is like the dingy snowflakes of time and entropy, I am thinking when Tess says, “Give me some light, babe.”
I turn on the flash light, making sure not to shine it into her eyes as she locates the connect point for the jack. It occurs to me that I should be the one on my back, on the ground, doing this, and for the millionth time in my life, I am endeared to Tessandra. There is my woman, helping me out in my time of need. A broken down car might well be considered an antithesis to romance, but after nearly three years together, we take these minor challenges wherever and whenever they may arise. I want to lie atop her body and begin making love to her right there in the middle of the icy street, beneath the bright, burning stars, with all of the neighbors peeking from their windows. But I know now is not the time. I make a strong effort to break myself from my dreams. You’re working, not romancing, I think. Be focused. Stay present!
Eventually Tess finds a safe spot for the jack-lift, but not before Steve, our obnoxiously helpful neighbor, decides to give us a hand. He sits there with his car parked in the middle of the street with his brights on and shouts, “I figure some light is better than none!”
“Well, we’ve got a flashlight, but, yeah, thank you,” Tess says, slightly annoyed.
The both of us hunkered down in the headlights, she mumbles now, “I just wish I could find a way to politely tell him I don’t want his fucking help.”
Steve, the big hulking man he is, slams his door shut and ambles over. He inquires as to if I have the emergency brake on so that the car doesn’t roll backwards.
“Uhmm…no, not really.”
Tess brings up the point that implementing the emergency break – one which I have never had to use – might lock up my rims and thus require an expensive tow.
“Ah, there is that!” he says.
Tess begins to crank up the car.
“Wait!” he shouts.
“I wouldn’t jack up the car any further without loosening the lug nuts.”
He was right. I vaguely remembered my dad saying something about loosening the lugs before jacking up the vehicle. “You’re right,” she admitted. “Thanks.”
Tess applied the tire iron. She pulled, yanked, grunted, did all sorts of hunchbacked dancing around my dilapidated tire. “Good Christ these are on tight!” she exclaimed at last.
“Have ya got a cross-handle wrench?” asked Steve.
“Just hold on one sec, I’ll run inside and grab mine!”
The man almost literally skipped back into his house. Tessandra sighed, irritated. She began yanking and pulling again. I watched Steve happily bounce back over to us. I looked at his belly and began thinking of a large bowl of green Jell-O.
He applied the steel cross to one of the lug nuts and began twisting, contorting, and standing atop the wrench. He heaved, grunted, grimaced, and then in an expression of utter futility, he wheezed, “WOW THAT’S ON THERE GOOD!”
“Yep,” said a frowning Tess.
I laughed, then felt some slight shame at the inappropriate timing. Tess threw down her tire iron, kicked aside the jack-stands with a clatter and said we’d be inside having dinner before anymore more of this shit.
“Got any WD40?” Steve inquired.
“Yeah. We’ll apply some of that and let it soak while we have dinner.”
I fetched our can of WD40 and Tess sprayed down the lug nuts. We went inside the warm kitchen to enjoy our pork chops.
After our bellies were full, we took a shot at loosening the lubricated lug nuts. She tried, then I tried, bending, yanking, gasping, doing the hunchback dance. All to no avail.
“Look at that, babe,” she said, pointing to the exposed rim.
I looked. My poor rim was as warped as the mind of a murderous drug junkie and as crooked as a politician. “Shiiiit,” I stated.
I really think you should move your car off the street.”
“You’re right, hon. I will do that.”
If I didn’t, I’d surely earn myself a delightful orange ticket slapped to my windshield, if not an outright tow. I drove my shitty car into the driveway. It rumbled sadly. Tess grabbed the make-shift two by fours once more and after several tries, accompanied by the stinky emanation of burning rubber (surprisingly, the wheel still had tire left to burn), we had it propped up once more.
We entered our warm abode with a simultaneous sense of relief and failure. I called up my old man again.
“I’m going to call up Wal-Mart. They had my tire, maybe they’ll have my rim.”
“Yeah,” he said. “They’re not going to have it, buddy.”
“Nope. Call up New Richmond Auto Salvage. They should have a used one for you, or they’ll order you one. You have to get a new rim, man. You can’t put on a new tire without a rim, you know what I mean?”
I very much knew what he meant.
It is six o’clock on Wednesday morning. My girlfriend has driven me to work, kissed me goodbye, and gone off to her own day job. I’ve an hour before my shift officially begins, and so I am sitting at the table closest to the front window of the Coffeehouse. It is still dark outside and all the grey, retired men are trickling in, ordering breakfast sandwiches for later and buying their black coffees now.
I’m sipping a dark roast with a few tablespoons of heavy cream from a white porcelain mug, reading Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. I am feeling sorry for that poor, clueless sot, Charles Bovary – the Madame’s husband. He has no idea how unhappy his wife is, nor her strong desire to have an affair with one of his associates. Poor Charles. I know I would feel mercilessly wrecked if Tessandra were unhappy and had another in her heart. Fortunately for me, of course, I know this is not the case. For she loves me madly, and I, her.
I ponder the nightmare I had last night. I dreamt I was having fun sliding down a gigantic car windshield. As soon as I reach the bottom, I would climb to the top again. The air whooshed by my ears. I could hear cracks in the glass beneath me, but this I ignored, deciding to slide down just one last time. And as I did, the glass gave way, and I collapsed into a literal swimming pool of shattered glass. I crawled my way through to the pool rails, and pulled myself out. My body bled profusely. Shards of glass stuck out of my legs and kneecaps. I suddenly awoke, sweating profusely.
I make some notes of this in my blue journal, and, begrudgingly, clock in for my nine hour shift. The day ekes by like a retarded snail undergoing radical constipation and finally the evening arrives. My father walks into the Dunn Bros. He is wearing a large, bulky winter coat with the words SNAP ON printed in red upon the back. Atop his head is his usual camouflage baseball cap. He watches as I make my final round of the lattes, teas, and coffees.
We drive to my home and jack up my car. Dad has already used a miniature blow-torch to heat the lug nuts to cherry red. Using an impact gun, a little battery-operated tool, he finally removes those bastard lugs. As he does so, he recommends I purchase myself the Milwaukee Tool Kit, which comes with the impact gun. “Can’t go wrong,” he says.
As my dad is down there, removing the wheel, I notice how much older he’s gotten over just these past few years. He takes off his baseball cap and he is nearly bald. A thin stubble of grey is all he has. There are strands of grey in his goatee as well, and as he lays upon his side, I see the end of his pot belly beneath his coat and ponder if I might acquire a belly in my old age as well. I am mystified by time and entropy. Rusty lug nuts. Aged men and women. The world spinning, but not forever. Everything, by course of physical law, is being inevitably worn down. For the moment, I cherish that my father is alive, and cares enough about me to help me out. As he takes off the tire, he eyes my brake pads. Disturbed, he shakes his head, saying, “Worn down to near shit….near shit.”
We drive his warm, sleek Ford focus to the New Richmond Auto Salvage, which is located just off of the main highway. It is a strange place. The building looks like an elongated double-wide trailer, transformed into a make-shift garage. Outside the front entrance is a cheap statue of a Greek God. I am not sure which one it is. His figure is fine, except for a dove, quite oddly, covering his genitals with spread wings.
“He’s quite modest, isn’t he?” I asked my father.
He pretended not to hear me. Upon my closer inspection of the replica, I notice someone has applied black earrings to the deity’s ears. He has been transmogrified into a blasphemous idol; a hipster god, ripe for the times. We enter the door.
The lobby is empty of people, aside from a little old lady sitting in one of the two waiting chairs. The front desk is piled with papers. In the far corner, a seven foot tall shelf chock full of ancient stereo equipment – crappy looking CD/Tape players, radios, and dusty speakers. My father picks one of the stereos up and remarks how expensive they were back in 1990, when he first bought one.
The lobby floor is largely occupied by used, stacked tires. The air smells of old rubber and dirt. A sign which reads, “Tire sets for $100!” is taped to most of the stacks. In the corner, an out-of-order ATM machine placed next to a dingy vending machine, selling Mike & Ike’s and fruit pies. High upon the wall is a shelf which runs 360 degrees around the lobby. Upon the shelf are rusting antique miniatures. There are trains, combines, tractors, milk trucks, old convertibles, racing cars, buggies, etc.
An immense man wearing a bright yellow sweatshirt saunters out of the garage. He is obviously a working man, as he is covered head to foot with grease smears and dirt.
“Y’all must be the folks looking for a rim,” he bellowed.
His voice very easily filled the tiny, crowded lobby. My father and I both confirmed this was the truth.
“Very well,” he nodded. “Rim will be $20. Placement upon the tire will be another $10.”
“Sounds perfect,” I said.
I hand him the new tire and he pops back into the garage. Ten minutes later he returns, wheeling out the new rim and tire. I look at the rim. It is ruddy brown, just like underneath my car. A perfectly matching appliance, I think. A few flakes of rust falls to the concrete.
“Yup,” he proclaims. “It’s a thang of beauty!”
I smile and pay the man in cash. We say ‘thank you’ and head back to my house and attach the new wheel. A great sense of relief runs through me at the tightening of the last lug nut and the setting of the hubcap. At last I am working with four wheels again, which is no small blessing!
The oil change, the fuel pump replacement, the brake pad replacement, will all have to wait for another day – a day to take place far sooner than I had initially planned, I will admit. The event of my flat tire has only awakened me to the realization that I am completely irresponsible with my duties of vehicular maintenance. Due to denying my need for a new tire and behaving negligibly, I have unwittingly wasted the time and effort of my girlfriend, father, and overly helpful neighbor. I have, however, provided some business for my local auto salvage. In life, there are many lessons to be learned. This has been merely one of a great many…and I am a man with much to learn.