Flat Tire by DJ Pileggi

Photo by Ricardo Resende on Unsplash

“Yeah, you fucked up,” his foreman, Kyle, said as water squirted out of the copper pipe. “You’re practically forty and you can’t solder a joint?”

“I’m thirty-five.”

“That’s not much better.”

Cary Oak crawled back under the sink with the torch, promising he would fix it before the end of the day. The plumbing apprenticeship took men of all ages, but Cary was the oldest at his company. After Kyle, seven years his junior, had corrected his mistakes for the second or third time, Cary momentarily questioned his choice to start over in a new profession.

Cary’s mother had told him he could be whatever he set his mind to. She would have regretted those words had she witnessed his inability to set his mind to anything for years. He was an assistant manager at the library when he saw the flyer for the plumbers’ union. At thirty-three Cary exchanged his polished Oxfords for steel-toe boots, after swearing to Tricia that this would be the last change. She was six months pregnant with Sam and studying for med school finals. He had expected a reaction, but not that she would leave the room. When she returned later she presented a list of things he would need to do after work, since he would now be home in the early afternoon.  Their communication from then on was through to-do lists. Most recently her emailed list included a line item that read: “Find yourself an apartment,” with several helpful suggestions attached. 

That afternoon his to-do list was busy. Once the sink was plumbed, he would pick up Sam early from daycare for a special outing, and then drive Sam and his mom to the airport. While they visited her family he would begin moving up the street. 

Some of the solder dripped from the pipe and burned through his glove. Cary shut off the torch and gave the pipe a few minutes to cool. When he turned the valve air whistled by, followed by a rush of water. The joints all held.

After the nod of approval from Kyle, Cary raced up the highway ramp still wearing his high visibility vest. He planned to change into his “dad” sweats before getting Sam. Then they would drive a few towns over to Rocket Park. He didn’t know the real name of the park, but it had a two-story rocket with a slide at the top, so that’s what Cary and Sam called it. At a height of five-foot-five, Cary could comfortably chase Sam up and down the rocket, often helping other frightened children at the top of the slide when their parents couldn’t retrieve them. He found it natural to play with Sam—not something he was pretending at, but returning to.  He and Sam got on well because they both liked roughhousing, candy, and naps. The only time being a father became a job was when he had to brush Sam’s teeth; Sam was adamantly opposed to this activity. 

Cary gnawed the dirty skin at the corner of his fingernails and wondered how he would fill all of his time in his studio apartment. Despite all of his hobbies, he became listless with too much time on his hands. Where was the pleasure of escaping into a book without the sweet threat of a crying toddler? 

A sharp bend opened to a long stretch of road with an exposed limestone wall and forest on either side. Where the road dipped, Cary spotted a white hatchback on the shoulder with its emergency lights flashing and a slender figure standing beside it. An eighteen-wheeler changed lanes to avoid the stranded vehicle as it blew past. Cary slowed as he approached the car pitching toward the guardrail. A young man with a stack of brown curls stood staring at the back wheel and holding the tire iron by the wrong end. In the rearview mirror he appeared smaller and more helpless. Cary continued to brake until he came to a stop on the side of the highway. 

As Cary reversed along the shoulder toward the curly-haired man, he regretted the purchase of his used minivan, with its dents and Baby On Board bumper sticker. In an attempt to avoid hitting the rail, Cary drove too slowly and made too many adjustments with the wheel, distracted by the young onlooker intermittently twirling the iron, then bending and stretching his toned arms and legs. 

Before getting out Cary caught his reflection in the mirror. Concrete dust in his hair, grease on his ears and neck. He licked his fingers and wiped what he could away. He removed the neon vest, and shook out his shirt. Cary couldn’t stop himself from affecting the same strut of his mechanic at the Valvoline garage. Even at work he employed the “act as if” method he’d learned in a college acting class, wearing a tool belt and buying Carhartt jeans to lend him an air of competence. He sensed this time that he was overdoing the nonchalance in his step, it bordering on a limp. He straightened up, put his hands in his pockets and tried to remember how to walk normally.  

As the young man stood to meet Cary a disarming smile spread across his face. Cary guessed he was in his mid-twenties. 

“Hiya.” 

The smooth voice came from the base of his abdomen, and caught Cary off guard. Beer, pizza, and shame had not yet disfigured the sculpted angles of his face. His skin had a golden hue from long weekends on the beach. He had shaved within the hour, bearing small cuts from his unpracticed hand. A light shine from aftershave lotion covered his cheeks and skin above his pink lips. He wore red Chuck Taylor’s, skinny jeans, and a Pearl Jam tee from their first album. 

“That’ll be hard to drive on,” Cary said, looking at the rubber oozing out from under the wheel. 

“Yeah, I don’t know what happened. This is my first flat tire.”

“No shit,” Cary said. “Well, let’s be quick. I’ve got to pick up my son, and it’ll be rush hour soon.”

“Oh my god, that’s so nice of you, thank you!”

Cary waved him off. “Got a tire?”

As the young man nodded, “Rock the Casbah” began to play. He pointed toward the back as he stepped away to answer his phone. Cary opened the back hatch and caught a large crash cymbal before it hit the ground. He moved aside another large cymbal and a snare drum, a polka dot shirt tangled in jeans, and several books that fell from their folds. He picked up the Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde. He couldn’t resist thumbing the pages, squinting to read the chicken scratch in the margins before placing it gently aside. 

Cary rolled the tire over with a shove, and then squatted in front of the flat. The young man folded his long legs into an awkward squat beside him, their shoulders touching. He smiled, eyes wide under his thick black-rimmed glasses as he presented the jack. 

Out of habit, Cary instructed him on how to replace the tire. “You need to place it under the car, but on the metal frame of the car, not on the plastic shit cars are covered in.” Going through the steps Cary acted the expert, convincing himself of the grease under his fingernails from work in an imaginary garage. This was in fact the second tire Cary had ever changed.

The first blew out in the Haight-Ashbury on a classmate’s dad’s BMW. Cary successfully changed Elizabeth’s tire by recalling a how-to speech given in an undergraduate course, while entertaining her with innuendo involving nuts and tools. She laughed and rewarded his handiwork by following him back to his apartment for the night. Aware of the sexual trope of the construction worker versus the male librarian, Cary suspected this young man would happily follow him home, and avoided making any “nut” jokes that might get him in over his head. But they kept coming to mind.

He didn’t know how he managed to change the tire the first time. As he replayed the how-to speech in his head, he stripped one of the lug nuts. He sighed into his shoulder, wiped away the sweat, and prepared to be exposed as a phony.  He had wanted to help, he tried to project an image of a Cary Oak who could fix cars, install appliances, and had a workbench at home. But he could barely install a sink, his car was full of books and baby wipes, and at home, Fischer-Price tools outnumbered his own tools four-to-one. 

“Anything the matter?”

Cary pretended not to hear, but he asked again. 

“Just stripped,” Cary admitted under his breath.

Cary pulled his Channellocks from his back pocket and decided to cover this up as a teachable moment.

“You just carry those around all of the time? So handy.”

“Pliers are directional. Whichever way you need to turn—to be clear, righty-tighty, lefty-loosey—turn towards the mouth of the pliers.” 

Cary handed him the pliers and watched him struggle to get the teeth to bite the stripped nut. 

“It sort of hurts my hand,” the young man said. “I’m afraid most of my manual labor has been on piano keys,” he continued. 

“Oh, so you play drums, piano, and you like Pearl Jam?”

“Yes! I also sing in a band around town.”

“Of course you do.”

He asked if Cary played an instrument. Was he ever in a band? What kind of music did they play? And what groups did he listen to now? He listed his own favorite bands—indie bands Cary wished he had heard of. They contained words like “foxes,” “electric” or some Southern-sounding town. He spoke passionately about everything. Each band he mentioned was “the best” or “even better than that one,” and Cary “had to check them out” when they came to town. Cary admitted he didn’t get much time for concerts anymore.

The young man asked about the Baby On Board sticker, then about Sam. Cary tried to only give the superficial details that strangers want to hear about other people’s children, but the young man’s brown eyes widened as Cary described his little boy, so he let himself go. He shared about the joy of holding Sam, soothing his cries at night with Dean Martin songs, of Sam running to him at daycare pick-up, and how playing with him transformed Cary into a child again.

“He sounds lucky to have such an attentive and handsome daddy.”

Cary’s stomach knotted up. It hung heavy and low with guilt like he’d eaten a whole pumpkin pie for breakfast. He told himself that he needed to focus on the tire and getting off the highway. The heavy end-of-week traffic would start soon. There was no time for pie. 

But the persistent young man kept asking questions, and Cary kept answering them. He stopped suddenly when he realized he was going on about his failed attempt at a relationship after disclosing his failed attempts at various jobs. Not only that, he was also tightening a nut he had just loosened. 

The young man smiled, took the tire iron, and re-loosened the lug nut. “I’m jealous you’ve had so many opportunities. You’ll be one of those grandfathers with all the best stories.”

Cary furrowed his brow at references to him becoming a grandfather, but he liked feeling heard. The young man’s enthusiasm seemed genuine. Men had hit on Cary before—in other cities, in every library. He would look away and respond with awkward politeness. Or, when persistent men treated Cary like their prey, he would excuse himself for a made-up task. But with this young man, he wanted to forget the tire altogether and pick his brain for more music recommendations, and ask about his favorite books. But he couldn’t. He avoided mentioning a biography of The Zombies he’d just read—and any book for that matter—or he wouldn’t have time for the park. 

They lifted the spare tire into place together. The young man stood to admire their work, pushing his glasses in place. He stretched his lean six-foot-two body, cracking his knuckles high in the air. Cars whizzed by heralding the start of rush hour. The tailwind caused the curls on the young man’s head to rise and dance against the cloudless sky.  

Turning back to the tire, Cary said, “So you tighten them just like you loosened them, a little at a time, not going around in a circle, but across. Just like your snare drum.”

The young man laughed and nodded approvingly. “You’re great. You have such a teacher-y voice. I feel all prepared like I work for Triple A or—”

“I don’t really know what I am doing. Not with this tire, not with . . .” Cary blurted out.  The words hung in the air with no wind to carry them away. 

The young man’s startled expression softened. His smile reached out like an arm around the shoulder, giving Cary goose bumps and a feeling of excitement that a therapist would later reveal to be relief.

“That doesn’t seem to be true at all.”

“If I know what I am doing now,” he said, taking the tire iron from Cary, “then you must, too.” He began to tighten the bolts, crisscross, as Cary had instructed. 

“I’m going to an anniversary party,” The young man said, graciously changing the subject. “It’s for the brewery I work for in the Seaport.” 

“Great views there.”

“Yes! We even have seating on the roof now. It’s really grown so much in a year. Come check it out, and I’ll buy your first round. And your second. I mean, when you don’t have to pick up Sam.”

In the awkward space created by the invitation, the two stared at each other. Cary did not feel like prey, but his eyes escaped to the sidewalk in search of the tire iron, only to find the young man tapping it against his tight jeans. 

Although Cary had enjoyed rendezvous with men off and on since high school—always late at night when the stranger could sneak him into a car, apartment, or empty office—he never engaged with any man publicly flirting with him. Since attempting a traditional family, he never engaged at night either. This part of him he once struggled to label, until he stopped trying. A squatter that emerged from his marrow in tapered jeans, muscle shirts, or more often, no clothes at all.  

Cary Oak never felt gay, or totally heterosexual; never totally masculine, nor effeminate; never truly a bookworm, nor terribly athletic. Most of him had dissolved into the guise of a blue-collar dad, drawing no suspicion as long as he bit his tongue when guys at work taunted each other with “gay” and “faggot.”

“Well hopefully you’re not too late. I’m pretty sure the tire is good to get you there tonight, just finish tightening the last of lugs,” he said.  

“Whatever you say, ya lug!”

They both laughed too hard at this, and then more at the laughter itself. Cary caught his breath and straightened up. He moved to shake the young man’s hand, but stopped short at the sight of his fingers black with grease. 

“Oh, sorry,”

The young man opened his right palm to reveal the grease on his hand too.

“I’m Karl Moss,” he said, wrapping Cary’s hand with his slender fingers. Karl’s pulse, hot beneath growing blisters, thumped against Cary’s hand. Continuous specks of grit traveled down Karl’s arm and disappeared under Cary’s shirtsleeve. Karl would be dirty for his work event. He would smell like the road—rubber and gasoline and heat. He needed a shower. They both did. Together they could scrub the rough dirt from under their nails, their hands, up their arms, around their neck. Cary could be touched and held close. Feel the hope that passion offers, which is the true beauty of it. Sure there would be sex, and that would be exciting like it can be with a new partner. But what he saw in the filth on Karl’s arm was the beads of water, the steam, the sound of his warm voice against the tiled walls, the closeness, the whispering of stories into the night, and then breakfast with more stories and coy reminiscences shared with a lover. That is a job Cary had not had in a long time. 

“You take care of yourself Karl.”

“Tritium.”

Cary gave a confused smile as he pulled his hand away, but Karl did not release him. 

“That’s the brewery.”

Cary nodded.

“Can I get your name, stranger?”

* * *

Cary Oak made it only a few miles down the road before he was convinced his clunky van had a flat tire. If he pulled over, Karl Moss would pass by. But he didn’t hear any wobbling sound, so he kept driving.

The steering felt sluggish as he pulled in to get Sam, but the tires looked fine. As he buckled Sam into his seat it began to rain, so Cary opted for ice cream instead. He let his melt as he helped Sam shovel his two scoops of vanilla into his mouth. On the way home they passed by Cary’s new apartment; he doubted he would ever take Sam there.

Sam’s mom came out to collect their boy before Cary had even undone his own seatbelt. “Sam’s Mom”—that’s how he referred to her to other people. And Tricia referred to him as “Sam’s Dad.” They would always be a team no matter where he lived. Cary could regret not knowing himself before they met, knowing he wasn’t right for her. But now that they had Sam, whatever “mistakes” he’d made had to be forgiven. 

Cary cleaned out the back, and folded the seats down to make room for luggage. He walked around the van, inspecting the tires once more. He kicked each tire, not really sure what to be looking for, but it felt good. He kicked the right-rear tire a few more times before deciding he would fill them all before heading to the airport. He didn’t want to get a real flat and have them miss their flight.

Soon Cary would have too much time to himself. He would go out more; he’d need to. Maybe after the airport he could pop in for a drink and finish a book. The rain had stopped, and he’d heard about a place that had rooftop seating and a view of the harbor. Maybe Cary would find a handsome curly-haired young man to discuss fairy tales.

About The Author

DJ Pileggi is a father and a writer. He has been paid both to dose antibiotics for septic shock, as well as install cast iron plumbing at Harvard University, in that order. He grew up outside of Chicago, has lived on both coasts, and currently resides in Massachusetts.

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