Night in a Time of Covid, by Zina N. Petersen
She knocks reluctantly on the door and waits a long three minutes for a porch light to pop to sad yellow life. The door opens but the person who opens it is backlit, a shadow to talk to.
“Hi. I uh, had a, my tire blew out just before I turned the corner there, and this a busy street. No parking. So can I—is that your driveway, right there? May I pull into your driveway just to change my tire?”
The screen door remains shut. The only other light besides the dim yellow glow on the porch is a streetlight three houses down and a bluish flicker from a tv somewhere deeper in the house. The person shifts on their feet, one to the other. Backlit, the face has no features, but when the figure speaks, the voice is deep and has the lilt and purer vowels of a second-language accent.
“It is my driveway, yes. You can park across the street, in the lot for the baseball field. My son will be here soon, he might be able to help you.”
“Yes of course. Thanks. I’ll do that.”
The huge van rumbles and limps on the blown-out tire.
The streetlight flicks off. The high-rise flood lights for the sports field are dark; it’s late January, raining, and cold. The tools are in the military ammo can and in the back of the van there’s a bottle jack. The pavement is puddly and cold and her clothes soak through quickly, but the van rises and the ruined tire seems to reinflate as the weight lifts from it.
Allen wrench for the hub cover; only two screws because the others are all cosmetic, and it’s almost impossible to know which, without trying them all. She is halfway through the second fake screw when a car pulls up alongside, then forward; it turns a tight U and its headlamps cast her work into glaring white, the shadows now inky and sharp. The driver has not emerged, but she stands and faces the headlamps, smiles, and gestures “thank you,” fingertips to chin and lowered. She turns back to the tire.
The hubcap screw jiggles loose and the other one pops out and rolls a foot away. With the headlamp light, she easily finds it. The car’s door opens and the man from the house comes over, pulling behind him a lightweight handtruck with a tank, medical tubes snaking up over his shoulders to his nostrils.
“I ah,” he says, “I can’t really help. I can’t get close—”
“No of course not! Please, I’ll be fine, thank you so much for your headlights! Would you like me to put my mask back on?”
“No, it’s ok. I’ll stay back. You have done this before?” He gestures to the crippled van.
“Yes, lots of times! I’ll be fine, and you’re very kind.”
“Do you need tools, or—”
“I have all my tools,” she nods toward the ammo box.
“That’s military,” says the man.
“It makes a nice tool box,” she replies.
“Are you military?”
“Nope. I just like their tool boxes.”
The lugnuts are sticky, and she opens the rear door of the van to retrieve the cross-wrench. It begins raining harder. Her hair is wet, and her right pants leg is soaked to the hip from where she has lain under the van to hitch the plate of the bottle jack under the axle.
When she returns to the side of the van, the man has parked his tank near him and has also produced a three-legged folding saddle and is now seated.
“I had the covid,” he says.
“I’m so sorry.” She speaks into the tool box, looking for the WD40 can.
“I will try not to get too close.” She pops the lid off the little yellow and blue can, and sprays the bolts.
“Yes,” says the man. “It ruined my lungs; I do not have much capacity for oxygen. I will stay eight feet, more than six!”
There is a smile in his voice, though his face is still in dark shade behind the beams of light from his car.
“Where do you come from? You sound like you have an accent.”
“I am from American Samoa.”
“Oh! I’m so sorry you have to be here,” she looks up into the rain, “where it is so much colder! Do you ever wish to go back?”
“Always. I try to get my wife to come, but.”
“I imagine it would be better for your lungs, Samoa. Warmer . . . .”
“And lower elevation, more O2 there,”
“And less pollution.” She secures the lug key into the head of the cross wrench and moves it to a nut on the far side of the loose one. “You a technical person? You do a lot of . . . this?” the man asks.
“No and yes.” She pats the van affectionately. “This ugly thing doesn’t break down enough for me to get any practice. But I can change tires. I am not working full time any more.”
“Oh and what did you do?”
“I was a professor. Now I like to make things, fix things. I do remodeling for friends. Tile bathrooms, install toilets, home stuff.”
“That is technical. Do you do much in cars? Mechanics?”
“Well I never got any formal training, I just like doing things with my hands.” At this, one of the lugnuts comes loose enough for her to remove it.
“Ah you got one,” says the man. “I was a mechanic in Samoa, then I came here to BYU for a degree.”
“And did you get a degree in mechanics? Engineering?”
“Yes mechanical engineering. I retired from Boeing after seventeen, eighteen years. Do you need a torque wrench? I have a torque wrench across the street.” The man rises from his little chair and gestures to his house.
Another nut comes loose. She lets out her breath. “I seem to be doing ok with this for now. I actually started with that torque—” she points to the ratcheted tool on the ground near the box, “but this gives me length on both sides of the fulcrum.”
“Yes, I guess you seem to be. Fine. But I do have a power drill at home, just across the street—”
The third of five comes loose enough to remove, and the man sits back down. “I will wait and see if you get the others. I cannot help, or my heart—”
“No please! Please don’t help, I don’t want you to strain anything. You’re very nice to me. And you could go home for your wrench but I will not stop trying. If you come back you may find me still straining and unsuccessful, or you may find me fastening on the spare, but I don’t think I’ll wait on a power tool if I can get this myself.”
“My son is coming, he could help you.”
“Thank you so much!” another nut loose and then off. “I could call my son, but he’s camping with his dad.” There are four lug nuts in the inverted hub cover.
“Was that it? The last one?” asks the man.
“One more. I have one more to go. It was stubborn, but it’s been soaking in the WD40 shot I gave it, so let’s see if I can do it.”
“Your son? Will he and your husband come to help?”
“Nah. I’m ok. I’m divorced.”
“You do all this by yourself then?”
“Mostly, I guess?”
The last lug nut stays stuck, and she changes her stance and her grip.
“What did you teach? Where did you teach?”
“I was a professor of Medieval Literature, at BYU.”
There is a small gasp. “That’s a good job! Why did you leave?”
She stands upright, releasing the wrench, letting it stay on the stubborn lug nut. “I’m gay.”
The man is very quiet. He hardly moves. She turns back to the wrench, and gives it a new heave. The nut comes loose, and she removes the wrench and twists it off with her fingers.
“You were at BYU. So. You a Mormon? Then?”
“I was. I’m not any more. They don’t like my type.”
“They said—no one said that to you.”
“No, not one, but many. Many have said that they don’t like my type.” She smiles sadly. “After I really came out to myself, I thought I should not stay at BYU. It wasn’t right, in so many ways.” She smiles again.
The man cocks his head sideways. “No, no that wouldn’t be right.”
She takes the tire off the hub of the wheel and bounces it around to the back of the van, where the spare tire is secured. Then she returns to the tool box, in the beam of the light, in the man’s company. “Forgot to take this!” she holds up the cross wrench. She could not have taken both it and the wheel. The lug nuts on the spare are easy. The spare bounces lively when she drops it from its hitch, and she catches it on the second bounce to roll it around to the side.
“Now, you should use my power wrench. You don’t want to strip those bolts, make em too tight.”
She stands back up and lets go her tools again to laugh. “Look at me!” She says. “Do you really think all fifty-six years of little old purple-hair lesbian could strip a lugbolt?”
She can barely see it in the shadow but he grins. “Don’t want them too loose, either!”
She points at him. “Now you’ve got your problems right!”
There is quiet as the man watches her hoist the spare tire onto her foot to ease it over the bolts in the wheel.
“Your hair is purple? I can’t see it in this light.”
“My hair is purple.”
The van is a little too high for the spare, and she takes up the jack handle to lower the van and not have to lift the tire. There is no conversation for a long while.
“So, when you decided to be that lesbian, did you stop going to church?”
She answers him. “It was not a decision, it was a discovery. An admission. Of everything that had been wrong in my life. Why I wasn’t a very good professor. Why my husband was sad and angry all the time, why I could not figure out—when what you have to figure out is, well, that. Half a century, I used up all my emotional and spiritual energy on smashing my own core.”
The spare tire slips over the first, and immediately all the rest of the lug bolts. “When you figure out the thing about yourself, the thing that has always been there but always been so scary. It burns down lives. But now.”
She raises her head and smiles broadly at his discomfort. “Now it all makes so much sense! Look at me with my stereotype tool box and my stereotype conversion campervan, and my mad habit of fixing things, and have you met my dogs? Tell me—don’t I seem like the absolute pip of a lesbian? My purple hair and my torque wrench—? Surely you would have been able to tell? I should have been able to tell! I mean, did I have to spell it out to myself with a Subaru, as well?”
She waits until the pause is uncomfortable enough for him to laugh, and then she picks up a lug nut. “Nah,” she says. “This a Chevy. My size gay don’t need that kind of crutch!”
It all goes quickly from here. She fastens on the lugnuts, tightening them down in a star pattern; lifting the heavy blown-out tire onto its hitch on the back. The man does come around from the side then, with a flashlight to help her find the screws, and he almost offers to help lift the heavy tire, but demurs.
“Thank you again,” she says as she tightens down the last of all the things she must tighten. “Your headlights and company helped me through a cold task.”
“You are welcome.”
She pulls the extension parts of the jack handle apart and puts them back in the case with the bottle jack. “I’d shake your hand, but I think not. And can I say one thing? I’m so sad you got this awful illness, but, so, so much respect to you, for not pulling out any rancid toxic masculinity, saying ‘Hey little lady lemme do all that for ya!’ and giving yourself a heart attack. Mad, mad respect for that. Your wife and son and family thank you.”
He lifts his hand in a thumbs-up symbol.
She offers a tiny salute-like gesture, and he turns back to his oxygen tank, takes up his little three-legged saddle stool, and walks back to his car.