Mar 1997

Spare Tire

by Ari Cetron

It was around 3:00 AM. I generally find this to be the best time for driving. There's almost no other cars out, so you don't have to pay close attention to the road. Except to look out for the odd deer or two (they always come in pairs.) Plus, there isn't much danger of getting caught behind some loser who feels it's his moral obligation to obey the speed limit. Those dorks are usually in bed by ten after pledging their soul to some made up trustee. Most cops are either asleep in their cars, or suckin' down coffee at some Dunkin' Doughnuts by this time. The few who truly care about annoying people who want to get somewhere at sixty-five mph are on the interstates, so on the back roads, everything goes.

Anyway, its threeish and I'm drivin', where isn't important (if you must know I was going to visit my mom). I was zippin' along, about seventy-five — eighty. I just came over top of a shallow hill, Not really steep, but enough so there's a no passing lane. Just as I crested this hill, I saw a little car with it's blinkers on and guessed this guy was in trouble. Now, as a general rule, I shoot past those guys without a second thought, but I figured, It is three in the morning, maybe the guy needs some help. Of course, as I pulled over, I kept thinking, what if this guy is some kind of psycho-mass murderer (also the first thing my friends thought when I told this story to them). Then I thought, hey, gotta die some time, what difference does it make when. Plus, It'll be good for my karma. Armed with this knowledge, I got out and went toward the above-average sized man approaching with a tire iron in hand.

"Hey, need a hand?" I asked hoping he wouldn't take me literally and dismember me with his lugwrench.

"Yeah, jack's no good. I got a flat."

"I'll get mine" I said, going to the trunk of my car and trying to conceal my fright. I began unscrewing the wingnut. It was a moonless night, but clear. The stars, however, were not much help. I got the jack from my car (which took a while when the stubborn wingnut was compounded with my nervousness) and closed the trunk. The only real light was coming from the yellow of his hazard lights. They flickered on and off like a heartbeat, silhouetting the stranded motorist every half second. Then the passenger door popped open and I almost dropped the jack in fright. I somehow managed to draw on some reserve strength and kept my cool. I looked up as a rather plump woman got out of the car.

"Wa's goin' on!" she demanded as if she had just caught me sleeping with the man.

"This nice man stopped to help us" he replied to her, obviously cowed by her tone.

"Hi" I said meekly, seeking her approval.

"Oh... okay," she said, and got back into the car.

"My wife," said the stranger "I love her." I was stunned by the genuine affection in his voice, this was obviously a woman who ruled his life. "Oscar J. Peidmont" he said, extending his right hand after switching the lug wrench to his left "glad to meet you." I took the man's hand and felt the callouses which could only be the result of years of manual labor.

"Tim" I replied, "glad to be of help." I could only wonder if he could feel the few ridges I had gotten after a few years at the gym. I hoped my grip was firm enough to gain his respect.

Now, we were a team. We walked along the white line marking the shoulder from the road until we reached the back of his car. A car shot past us at what had to be sixty-five. Damned speeders. I looked at the offending tire for the first time. It was certainly flat, so, if he was going to kill me, at least he didn't go halfway on the details. Oscar J. Peidmont moved past me to the rear bumper of his car and placed the jack there. Now, I'm no car expert by any means. I just learned to pump my own gas last month (self-service is illegal in Jersey). But, I'm pretty sure you don't put the jack under the bumper. I thought it had to go somewhere near the wheel. But, I figured the guy knew his car better than I knew car theory, and decided not to say anything.

"You got a flashlight?" he asked testily, but without malice.

"Nah." I replied in the same tone. At the same time I made a mental note to put one in my car next chance I got. One of those big ones that take four batteries and are made out of airplane aluminum. It provides light and protection (the new and improved version of fire).

He stood up and glared at me. I thought, this is it, this is where he kills me and its all because I don't have a flashlight. I could see it now, "Motorist found with jack shoved up his ass and lug wrench through heart. Word 'flashlight' cryptically written in blood next to him. Film at eleven."

"Me neither" he said.

Dammit! Just kill me already! He clapped his hands against his thighs and then beat his chest. He reached into his shirt pocket for what I was sure would be a buck knife and produced an ever-so-lethal book of matches. "Guess we'll have to use these." Another stay of execution. "I got the jack near..."

"What the hell's takin' so long!" His wife scared the shit out of me.

"If this was my van we'd a bin outta here fifteen minutes ago!" This confused me. I thought he was the weak one in the relationship. "While you're out the car, stay there Be easier to lift without you." I thought this was it. He's gonna buy the farm now. Yelling at her is one thing, but calling her fat, (in spite of the fact that she was) he was done for. Of course, I'd be next. "Bizarre double homicide on route fifty has police baffled. Stay tuned for details."

"I ain't sittin' in the grass." She took it better than I thought.

"I don't care what you do, long as you don't get back in the car 'till we're done."

"Fine" she said like a third grader trying to save face. With that she sat down on the shoulder between the two cars and crossed her plump arms. I was wondering exactly who the hell did wear the pants in their relationship.

"As I was sayin'" he began, jarring me back to the business at hand "I got the jack near the bumper. Now, I'll light the match and hold it there while you put it in the right place. I was torn between correcting him for not clearly defining the antecedent of 'it', and telling him the jack should be near the wheel under the frame. Instead, I said nothing. So, we got down on our hands and knees, supplicating ourselves to the god of tire-changing. He lit a match, but before he could get it near the jack an eighteen wheeler shot by and blew it out. We had offended the god of tire-changing, perhaps a pilgrimage to Akron (unfeasible as it was) would appease him. Oscar simply lit another match, ignoring the god's anger. He brought it near the jack and I moved it until it looked like it was under something solid. "Okay, it's good." He said as he began to turn the lugwrench (it was a screw kind, not a pump kind). Eventually, it reached the contact point.

"Wait a sec." I said and lit another match so I could make a last second adjustment. "Okay Go."

He began to twist again. The jack strained against the bumper as the car fought to obey gravity and remain on the ground. It seemed as if the jack would win this battle. I looked over at the wheel watching for it to leave the ground. The metal continued to groan and, suddenly, I heard a loud clanging noise. The jack slipped. We lit another match so we could be sure everything was all wrong. It was. I lowered the jack while Oscar went around to check on his wife. It only took a minute to get the jack to a level where I could slide it from under the car. I sat down on the pavement and waited for the match bringer to return. When he did, I finally offered my automotive expertise.

"Maybe we should move it over by the wheel. Under the frame." I was expecting him to correct me for not clearly defining the antecedent of 'it', but he didn't.

"Yeah, course. I should'a known that. Just tired."

"Probably." I said. I didn't think he was going to kill me any more, but I still didn't want to piss him off.

"You know, I really appreciate this."

"Hey, you woulda done the same for me, or at least for someone."

"I don't know, there's lotsa crazies out there. In fact I was kinda worried when you pulled over. I thought you might be one of them."

I grunted in affirmation and began to wonder about the kind of place I live. Has it reached the point where a simple act of helpfulness calls a man's sanity into question? I suppose so, else Oscar wouldn't have been worried. While I stood there wondering Oscar had begun to place the jack in the right general area. We began the match lighting process again, but it didn't work. Every time, either a breeze would blow, or a truck or car would speed past and put the matches out. Oscar ran out of matches and we both sat there, beaten by the tire-changing god. Then it came to me: "Maybe I should move my car behind yours, then we can use my headlights."

"Yeah, that's a good idea." He said this flatly and I couldn't tell if he had been thinking this for the past 15 minutes, or if he really thought it was a good idea.

I got up and shuffled over to my car. After I turned it on and looked at the clock, I realized just how late it was getting. Armed with this knowledge I began to feel even more tired than I was just seconds ago. I thought about just going, stepping on the gas and not stopping 'til mom's driveway. But, Oscar had my jack, and I felt like I should finish what I had started. I swung the car around, making a big oval, and came up behind Oscar's car. Just before I was about to get out one of my favorite songs came on the radio. Isn't that always the way. I turned off the ignition, left the lights on, and, for once in my life, was allowed to ignore that annoying ping noise my car makes when something isn't right. I walked the few feet to his car.

"That better?" Of course I knew the answer to this but I felt like I should say something.

"Yeah, great stuff."

"I thought of that when you started!" Apparently Mrs. Peidmont decided she had been ignored long enough.

"Why didn't you say somethin' then!" Peidmont roared back.

"Humph" she replied sitting down again.

"My wife," started Oscar turning towards me "I love her." The way he said this made me wonder about the veracity of this statement. But hey, who am I? With the aid of light we were able to position the jack more easily, and the car was up in a flash. Mrs. Peidmont was standing again and seemed about to lean against the car, but Oscar shot her a glance that said no. She sat back down and convinced me Oscar was in control. We began struggling with the hubcap wordlessly, and only managed to get our fingers pinched several times. Then Oscar thought to use the wrong end of the lugwrench. It turned out to be the right end after all and the plastic disc popped off.

"Damn foreign cars" Peidmont pronounced.

"Yeah" I agreed, but withheld the fact it was probably made in Georgia or the Midwest somewhere.

"I really do appreciate this."

"No problem" I thought he was trying to start a conversation so I decided to keep up my end. "Just hope someone upstairs is watching."

"He's always watching." Oscar did not consider this a topic for debate.

"I guess." I tried to sound thoughtful, but don't think I quite pulled it off. I had to stand and step on the lugwrench to get the first one to loosen, but from there we got the tire off pretty quickly. I held the mini in place while he tightened up the lugnuts. I looked at the tire hoping to find a nail or, broken bottle to blame for all of this, but I found was no such criminal. Oscar lowered the car until the mini was touching the ground and I heaved the flat into his trunk.

"Thanks again." he said. This time when we shook hands I couldn't feel the callouses. They had been washed away by the car's grease. Oscar handed me my jack.

"Yeah, yeah, don't mention it. Hey, want me to follow you to a gas station? You just got that mini and all."

"Nah, I should be okay." Of course, we would be going the same direction on the same road, so I would be following him anyway.

"If you're sure."

"Oscar! Let's get goin'!" Once again Mrs. Peidmont demanded attention. She was already in the driver's seat and started the car.

"My wife..."

"You love her" I finished for him like an old, inside joke. We chuckled as he got into his car and I went back to mine. I popped the trunk open and threw the jack in. I decided to leave it there and for now and tighten it again in the morning. right now I wanted sleep. I got back into my car and watched Oscar drive away. After that last exchange, I began to wonder which one of them really did wear the pants in their marriage. Maybe they just both wore kulats. I placed the key in the ignition and the headlights dimmed slightly as I turned the key. It worried me for a second , but the engine started, no problem. I pulled off the shoulder without looking since cars had long since stopped going past. As Oscar's now distant car turned off it's hazard lights my car began shaking a little. At first I ignored it, but it started getting annoying. I stopped and got out. My right front tire was flat as a board. I looked up and down the road and saw nothing but night. I looked at my watch and saw quarter to four. I looked at the road again. No Mr. Peidmont. No cops. No nothing. I guess at that time of day no one is watching.


Ari is 23 and living in the suburbs of Washington, DC. He has a BA in English from the University of Maryland at College Park and runs the fax machines for a large law firm, patiently waiting for an agent to contact him and say he or she would love to represent him in the search for a publisher of the novel he has nearly completed.