The only time I had a chance to change a tire, I was sixteen. My dad bought me a crapped-out ’68 Mustang and I spent a couple months watching him fix it up in the garage. I gathered no knowledge, gleaned nothing. I fetched tools and brought out snacks. I held no romantic notions about cars, and was much more interested in what my friends were planning or who was winning the football game than I was in noodling around in a dusty, stifling garage with my dad. I now understand that fixing up a classic junker with one’s father is something lots of American males dream of, but at the time I didn’t understand much of anything, pinched as my mind was with hormones and rebellion and insomnia and teenage philosophy. This episode, my spectator status in the refurbishment of this Mustang, was what labeled me, in my family, as unhandy, as useless when it came to tools, mechanics, manly activities that dirtied the hands. I picked up the two friends I did drugs with and we dropped innocent-looking, gray hits of acid, quickly ate something at a burger joint before our appetites left us, and I drove us to a plain, stucco dance club called DNA, which, on certain nights, hid its liquor bottles and let sixteen-year-olds in. A few things that are exotic when you’re sixteen and it’s 1993: black light, tongue and navel and eyebrow rings, girls from other high schools, tattooed yet motherly bartendresses. We went in and receded immediately into our own minds, as trippers will, speaking now and again just to make sure we still could. We drank dozens of Cokes. Our gums felt strange. Our senses of smell grew keen. We listened to Rage Against the Machine and Blind Melon, feeling like we’d never heard these songs before, that there were endless nuances hiding in the notes. The whole world, we saw, had nuance we’d never noticed. On the way home, a thick fog enveloped us. We were taking the back roads. We were tripping balls, as they say. “Peaking.” One of my friends, Don, started telling a Stephen King story—“The Fog” or “The Mist” or something. We were driving through an area best described as “sketchy.” The place was too sparsely inhabited to be a bad neighborhood. It wasn’t rural because that requires some farming or at least big yards or cows. It was a stretch of road where you hoped not to see people because there was no good reason for people to be there, a place where you were likely to witness something you didn’t want to witness.
This, of course, is where we got our flat tire. We ran over something wooden and then drove for another two miles, the rumbling getting louder, until we were prepared to admit to ourselves that we had no choice but to pull off. We sat in the car for a time, inert with denial, in a parking lot that seemed to have dropped from the sky. There wasn’t a building nearby, or a park or anything. When we finally ventured into the darkness, it was hard for me to prioritize my worries. The fog churning past us could be the Stephen King fog. We could get slaughtered by roving, semi-rural Satanists. We were going to miss curfew at Don’s house. My hair felt like wadded steel wool, and maybe someone would shave it off and use it to scour pots and pans. The biggest mosquitoes I’d ever seen were swarming us, and they could be carrying malaria. Most of all, I was worried because even though my dad had shown me how to change a tire less than a month before in our garage, and it had seemed simple as simple could be, I wasn’t going to be able to manage it. There was no way. It had seemed simple in the garage, but now it was a thousand-step process. Just opening the trunk was arduous. A whole bunch of junk had to be moved so we could get to the jack. We kept stopping to take walks, to think things over, and thinking things over when you’re tripping is the worst idea. I knew I would put the jack under the wrong part of the car and either do major damage to the car or have the car slip the jack and kill one of us. Even in my drug-addled state, the whole thing was humiliating. One of my friends was incapacitated, flat on his back, examining a charm bracelet he’d picked up off the pavement. Don, for his part, had plenty to say but refused to touch anything, wouldn’t help me lift the jack or even hold the flashlight. He kept laughing at nothing. He suggested, at some point, that I call my dad and have him drive the forty-five minutes we were from home and change the tire for us, and of course that was out of the question. It was embarrassing enough, not being able to change a tire, without my dad, who already thought I was useless in lots of important ways, finding out about it. Anyway, we were tripping our brains out. He’d know the second he saw us.
I thought I’d reached critical mass as far as embarrassment went. I hadn’t. Who, around four in the morning, stopped and changed the tire for us? A cop. In order to obscure the fact that we were on drugs, we had to play up the fact that we were idiots when it came to cars. When the guy pulled up, we’d gotten as far as fitting the lug wrench onto one of the nuts. We couldn’t budge it. Don, who still wouldn’t touch anything with his hands, was jumping up in the air and stomping down on the wrench handle, shouting shy-u-ken, the battle cry of his favorite video-game character. The cop was young. He was trying to be our buddy. He said something like, “I guess you guys are having a pretty crazy night. I have some crazy nights on the force. You can’t imagine.” It was mortifying, being saved by a cop—a friendly one, at that. It almost put me off acid for good.
That was my lone shot at changing a tire. My Mustang was sold the following year to help with the cost of college. I went four years without a car, and all the cars I’ve had as an adult have been very used and haven’t had spare tires. Also, my mother got a job at AAA. The last few years, years in which I’ve done a ton of driving, I’ve had only to make a phone call when I was stranded on the road. AAA is efficient. They come right out and tow you to the nearest shop and you’re back in business in an hour. It’s always a tire or something simple like a belt, something a competent male would know how to fix on his own. I’ve called AAA for help in Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma twice, and Georgia three times, and in each instance my masculinity has been compromised a bit further. Plus, once I was driving on the beach with my girlfriend in my small pickup and we got stuck in the sand and a guy with a big pick-up had to pull us back to the street. Plus, I have become a writer. If you ever want someone to believe you are wholly void of practical life skills, tell them you’re a writer.
So. The solution is simple. I’m going to buy a jack and a lug wrench, keep them in my truck, and stay on the lookout for stranded motorists. I’m going to pay my tire-changing debt to the universe. I’m going to have my own jack, one I know how to use and know I can depend on, and a strong, shiny wrench, and I’m going to hope for mothers with children. I’m going to erase from my memory the night a cop ruined my adolescent pride, the night I blew my shot. When I talk to my dad on the phone, I’ll drop it into the conversation casually. “Oh, not much. Picked up some new sneakers. Watched the second half of the Clemson game. Changed some tires on I-75 in the rain.”