A week before Christmas, I refilled the tires of my car for the first time, having no idea whatsoever how the process should go. A cold snap and a lack of attention had sunk my mighty steed, Carlemagne, so I decided that after teaching my mid-morning class, he and I would sally forth to the gas station down the road. My students and I read passages aloud from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; we paused as that gallant youth rode off to his dread destiny, propelled by a desire to keep his promise and prove his valor. Class ended, and I drove to Valero.
In defense of my ignorance, I had only been a car owner for six months. My faith in Carlemagne was the faith of the simple child of the Gospels. I did not ask to know his ways, like Job did—where was I, after all, when Henry Ford set his assembly lines in motion? Yet I think I mistook childlike faith for childlike thought. It was time to put away juvenile things and plunge into the mystery.
I had suited up for the occasion, feeling some kind of ceremony was called for. I wore my sturdy blue waterproof boots (You never know what can happen, I thought) and a long blue coat, and put my hair in a bun so it wouldn’t interfere (with what, who knew). I had texted myself an article entitled “How to Check Tire Pressure at a Gas Station.” What Sir Gawain would’ve given for a smartphone! He could’ve punched Green Chapel into Google Maps and cut the poem by 200 lines.
It was a rare, cold December day in Dallas, a place where I had no family and no one to whom I could pass any chores. My father was 1,000 miles away; my grandfather, ever the handyman, was gone, though as I drove, his box of rusty tools slid back and forth in my trunk.
I knew the thing I had to do was read the tire pressure with a gauge, which could be found on the pump at the gas station. However, I soon discovered that I did not know what a pressure gauge looked like, significantly impeding my ability to use one. The gas station attendant could not tell me, either; the man at the repair shop next door had none to lend me. So, with my eyes set on the auto store a block away, I shoved my hands in my pockets, hunched my shoulders, and set off across the windy lot to buy a gauge myself.
I returned from the hinterlands twenty dollars poorer, but ready to engage in battle, if you will. The first problem I faced was removing the caps from the tire stems. I tried wrenching them off with my fingers, to no avail. I found—alas—I needed a pair of pliers. This could have been a grim turn of events, but then I thought to open the trunk.
In my only turn of good fortune, I clicked open my toolbox and chose my grandfather’s sturdies pliers, tinted a festive orange with rust, from among the mess of wrenches and bolts. (Ah, my grandfather: a man of few words, who, when I was a small child, used to entertain me by yelling, “Get lost!” until I shrieked with laughter. He would say this whenever I came close to him. Neither of us knew why the game was so funny, and I doubt anyone else knew, either. Still, he could accomplish more with two syllables than others could with a thousand, and now, five years after his death, here were his hand-me-down tools like a set of squat, heavy words left to help me.)
The caps came off of the stems. One battle won.
Over the course of the next half hour, however, I confronted ignorance after ignorance. I was using the gauge wrong and concluded my tires were losing air the more I put in.
I stared at the tires. I wondered, did they look, at least, like they had reached 30 PSI? Quite so! In fact, I could tell they were at very satisfactory PSI levels indeed, the best I had ever seen. But in case this was not true—in case my keen eyes were mistaken—I read the instructions on the gauge. It turned out these were remarkably useful for people who, several minutes ago, could not have distinguished a pressure gauge from an oral thermometer.
But all the while, it was cold and my fingers were stained with an ambiguous residue, and I was aware of how I must look, a short woman in a trench coat pacing around her car, reading a booklet, stabbing at her tires with different instruments. I realized it was twelve noon and I tried to grumble through an Angelus in my thoughts, distracted after every other line by erroneous updates on the PSI. (“Seven? Shouldn’t the tire be nonexistent?”) Oh—I’m sorry, my Lady. I’m no Gawain with your image on his shield.
With every frustration, my instinct was to give up and call someone. Each time, I reminded myself this was not possible; like it or not, I would do it alone. I could manage to fill my tires once, I told myself. I would do it this once, and before I needed to do it again, I would find a husband.
Then, suddenly, the strange hissing sound which had attended all of my efforts thus far—the persistent noise of escaping air which had accompanied every poke of gauge or pump—ceased. It was as if a treacherous snake had been silenced, a foe subdued. I got a good seal on one of the tires, and the numbers started to swerve in the right direction. By the time I got to the fourth tire, I was swift as could be.
All I had to do was make sure the stem caps were screwed tightly in place, as I was afraid to imagine what I’d do if I lost them. It was hard to pry the old pliers open again. When I fixed those rusty fingers around the caps, I felt I was borrowing the strength of a firm, ancient, knowing hand—my grandfather’s hand, which had often been extended to others in aid; which, tough as it was, had scribbled your husband loves you for my grandmother on the back of a stray paper; which had fixed pipes at a GM plant for decades and might’ve been ashamed of my mechanical skills; but the hand of a man who had no daughters, and only one granddaughter, and called her “his girl.” And this weathered strength was one among many working from time-start to time-end among the frustrations of the old earth – always following, following, along the wintry ways where no steps are heard.
I put the tools back in their box and drove back to Camelot on high wheels.
Adriana Watkins studied at Boston College and is currently a middle school English and History teacher in Dallas, TX