by Larkin Vonalt
Long ago, back when a good story seemed the most valuable thing, I used to tell people that my earliest memory was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It wasn’t true. I was old enough, 22 months, to have remembered that tragic day, and I’m certain that my parents were absolutely shattered by the event, so perhaps with hypnosis or something, I could dredge it from the frontal lobes. But no, my first real and entirely recollected memory is of a flat tire. Two flat tires actually.
I remember sitting on the fender of my mother’s maroon car in the heat of the sun, on the side of a road in a pine forest. I was probably two and a half then. A family in a white station wagon stopped to pick us up, and I sat in the way back surrounded by older children. The inside of the car was red. We went to an Esso station and that’s all I remember. I know it was an Esso station because I remember the sign was four characters inside a white oval with a blue frame. The details have been filled in for me over time. My mother hit a pothole, and got two flat tires. The gentleman of the family that picked us up took my father and one fixed tire back to the car and helped him put on the fixed tire and the spare and then Dad came back to the gas station and picked us up. It was some place in Georgia. The car was my mother’s Corvair, famously unsafe at any speed, but my mother still describes it as one of the best cars she ever had.
There have been uncounted flat tires since then, though luckily only a few have been dramatic. In 1986, I was driving through Binghampton, NY on I-86 and I had a blow-out on my Volkswagen rabbit. I was in the center lane and managed to nurse the car to the far edge of the road along the median. I had to cross three lanes of traffic with my dog to get off the highway. I have to wonder if there was some vibe about me in those days that was off-putting or if it’s just Binghamton, but what sticks with me is how people were not at all kind. I had AAA, so I walked about a mile to a Holiday Inn to call them. The desk clerk yelled at me because my sweet dog was sitting quietly at my feet while I made the call from a payphone in a hallway. I was told it would be at least an hour until the wrecker could get there.
I tried calling some old family friends who lived in Vestal. I’d known them since I was five. I thought maybe they’d come help me, but they just said they were glad to hear from me and hoped I’d have a better trip after this mishap. So I walked the mile back and crossed the three lanes of interstate traffic and sat in the car and prayed no one would hit me. A New York State Trooper stopped and gave me a ration of grief, but when he learned that a tow-truck was coming, he set out some flares and went on his way.
The tow-truck driver wouldn’t let me bring the dog in the cab, and complained about the car not being “off the road” and with a great deal of huffing and puffing delivered us to the Sears automotive department, where I bought a tire for $40 and set off again in the dark. I’ve had no interest in returning there. For any reason.
Another flat tire that sticks with me is the one that my uncle Tim changed on the Swingley Route in the wilds of the Beartooth mountains in Montana. The road is washboard, it took us awhile to realize that the tire was flat. Tim and his wife and two boys were visiting us; I was 8 months pregnant. My husband was working, but I was leading them on a merry adventure to the Roadkill Bar and Cafe, fifty miles away in McLeod. Eventually it became apparent that something more than usual was wrong with our 1988 Volkswagen Quantum. (The best thing about that car was the license plate: LEAP. The worst things were too numerous to list.)
Then there was today’s.
Crossing East Dayton on Third Street is about my least-favorite route across the city. The street is narrow, but heavily traveled. The houses are alternatively boarded up, burned out, or inhabited by hollow-eyed white folks who long ago gave up on ambition. There’s a Rite Aid, and a Shell station where you have to go inside to pay because they have too many drive-offs. There’s a store-front “nightclub” promising dancers, a used appliance place, takeout Chinese, a couple of corner groceries, one of those was the last place a teenaged girl was seen alive before her body was found in a trash can a block away.
We’d taken the Mercedes. It’s our nicest car, one that someone paid 75 grand for in 2003. We don’t usually drive it around town, “preserving” it in the garage most of the time. A guy in a maroon pick up truck pulled out in front of us onto Third, “merging” right into the traffic as seems the convention these days– never mind right of way, or stopping before making a turn. My dear husband is very sensitive about the bad habits of other drivers, which means every time he gets behind the wheel of a car, he is enormously aggravated by those less considerate around him.
A few blocks up, the maroon pick up decided to turn left onto Findlay. We only know that he was deciding to turn left because he came to a stop in the middle of an intersection with a green light. Muttering, Elmer went to drive around him– but the guy swung wide to make the left and startled, Elmer goosed the car to get out of the way, running over the curb on the opposite corner. That something was badly wrong was immediately apparent.
“Well, shit.” I said. “Better pull in at this gas station.”
“No,” he said “That’s a private enterprise and we’re not buying gas there.”
“Well, you can’t stay on this street, pull in there.” And he did. And yes, the right front tire was flat to the ground, the sidewall having been punctured by the cast iron storm sewer cover that juts out a tiny bit from the curb.
Oh, the drama. I got out the card and called AAA. I helped unload a few things out of the trunk. I called the insurance company in case there was more damage than just the tire, perhaps some suspension issue. Yes, we would be covered, let them know if we needed to make a claim.
I stopped myself from screaming “How many times do I have to tell you to watch out for the curbs?” I listened patiently to him rant about the driver in the pick-up, and his despair at the impending expense. And somehow it was of course, my fault that we’d taken this car instead of his usual driver, a 14-year-old Saab with 230,000 miles.
The AAA service guy arrived– someone directly from AAA– and none too friendly. I need to call them about that on Monday. Why on earth would you take a job helping people if you can’t at least be courteous? The “emergency spare” doughnut was impressive– as tall as a regular tire. The Mercedes-Benz owner’s manual has 10 pages on how to change the tire and cautions not to run the car on more than one “emergency spare” at a time. Apparently the AMG version of our car has a “collapsible spare” and auxiliary air-pump. I read the description of it out loud and we laughed as we pictured someone unfolding the “collapsible spare” out of a cardboard box. (Disappointingly, it’s not that different from the regular doughnut.)
When we got home, he was still too upset to call the tire places, so I did. One tire place not only had the matching tire at the best price, but the guy on the phone called me “hon,” which made me want to cry. He has to order the tire out of Charleston, but it will be here Tuesday. We joked that it was good the tire wasn’t coming out of Boston, with its impending blizzard. He said he’d call me when it was in, and they’d take care of me.
The rest is just money after all.