Most kids in Tuolumne knew that once their favorite Christmas toy ran out of batteries or they broke all their new crayons, it was going to be a long time before they got new ones. The same went for a flat bike tire. One of my first bikes was a boy's moto-cross bike. It was neon green with thick nubby tires and a removable Velcro crash pad. I felt tough when I rode that bike. The sound of the nubby tires grinding along the light gravel where the pavement ends at the bottom of the hill in front of our house encouraged me to pedal as hard as I could before hitting the breaks hard, sending up a cloud of dust small bits of gravel all around me as I skidded and swerved to a dramatic stop.
Recalling a song I had heard on the radio a few times, I sometimes just rode around or headed for town with the words to the song tumbling around in my head as I soared past every large rock and tree I knew by heart along the road to town, passed the field of bachelor buttons that I sometimes picked for my mom, and up toward Mean Irene’s house, passed one of the places where my old friend Sammie had lived, my long hair lifting off my neck as I jammed down the hill before slowing to take the sharp corner on the street at the back of the baseball field: “I want to ride my bicycle/I want to ride my bike/I want to ride my bicycle/I want to ride it where I like.”
After many miles on the already worn tires, I found the front tire flat as I was about to jump on and take off down the driveway. Deflated, I reasoned that I had probably ran over of one of those thick pointy thorns, and the tire had developed a slow leak – a term that I heard adults use for car tires that were filled several times a day in order to get around town or to Sonora and back, rather than replaced. No longer able to tell the difference between spring and summer and determined to get back on the road as soon as possible, I asked Mom’s friend T-Bill if he could take it to his shop and fix it for me. T-Bill rented a garage space downtown Tuolumne where he fixed cars, making money under the table to support his various habits. All the kids loved T-Bill; he liked to make jokes and laugh mightily, and he often spoke in funny voices when talking to us kids to get us to laugh along with him. T-Bill got his name because when he was young, he liked Thunderbirds -- used to steal them and other cars which is how he learned his trade as a mechanic.
Pulling his long dark hair, back into a pony tail, he said, “Sure, Michelle, I’ll fix your bike tire for you,” in his trademark funny voice that sounded like the voices of the Three Stooges all combined into one. I ran to find a wrench that I thought was the right size and brought the bike to the front of the house. With the keys hanging from his belt jingling, T-Bill stepped out of the house, a cigarette hanging from his mouth. He was like a hippy burnout version of Schneider on One Day at a Time, and he knew it. He’d pop in to see my mom whenever one or the other of them had a spare joint to share. I handed him the wrench, and he kneeled down on the front step where the bike listed at a diagonal on its funny little kickstand.
“You even got me the right size,” T-Bill said, squinting up at me, the sun a shock to his blood shot eyes.
“I just want to get it fixed before summer is over,” I said, taking the opportunity to hint at what a hurry I was in. Everyone who left their wheels with T-Bill knew that not paying what you’d would to get your car fixed in Sonora, meant a lot of waiting. T-Bill didn’t rush his work. If one of his favorite episodes of Star Trek was on, he wasn’t going to be making his way down to the shop until it was over, and if another one came on after that, he may not have made it down there at all. Then there was the thing about the parts. If your vehicle needed a part that he didn’t likely have in his makeshift garage in town, then he’d have to drive to Sonora to get it, and if his own car wasn’t working, then you’d just have to wait until it was. “Do you need me to get some money for the tube from my mom?” I asked reaching out my hand, offering to hold the washer and nut he had finally worked off the bolt.
“Nah, your mom already took care of that,” he said, yanking the tire
off the bike.
He handed me the tire and asked where he should put the bike. I pointed to the shed that was up a small slope about twenty feet from the house where the wood to burn in winter was kept. I watched, holding the nubby tire in my hand, as he carried the bike, his keys jingling along the way.
“Okay, Cheryl, add - ios,” he shouted toward the house. Mom hollered a loud goodbye in return, as he began walking toward the driveway.
“T-Bill, don’t forget the tire,” I said.
Chuckling, he said in his Three Stooges voice, “You thought I forgot about your tire?”
Not wanting to doubt him, I smiled and handed him the tire, saying, “Thank you, T-Bill. Thanks for fixing my bike.”
Walking down the driveway toward his beat up old sedan, he said, “Don’t thank me yet!”
What seemed like weeks and weeks passed before I got my tire back. How hard could it be to fix a bike tube? How long could that take? Maybe I could have done it myself? I mean, I didn’t mind walking, but the days were getting longer and Mom didn’t seem to care if I didn’t get inside the house until 8:30 or so, as long as I wasn’t wearing my school clothes outside and as long as it wasn’t dark. As if I had any business in town near the triad of bars in between which T-Bill’s shop sat, stooping to the side, too old to stand up straight, I found myself cruising by on foot. If the garage door was open, I’d slow my walk, nearly stopping and force my eyes to adjust to the dark quickly. Straining to see, I’d look for T-Bill’s shape – tall, square-shouldered, long dark pony tale. Sometimes his big black steel-toed boots would be poking out from under some car with a dented bumper.
“Hi, T-Bill,” I’d say when I was sure he was there, hoping he’d remember that my tire was fixed and stored away in some corner, waiting for me to come for it. Sometimes T-Bill wasn’t at the shop at all and the heavy door would be closed, my bike tire abandoned and locked away.
After several weeks, I took to asking my mom about my tire. “Mom do you think my tire is fixed yet?” or “Do you think T-Bill has fixed my tire?” But her answer was always the same, “I don’t know, Michelle.” I knew better to keep asking. I didn’t want to hear her go off on some long tirade about how T-Bill was supposed to finish fixing some friend’s car and how that car was sitting outside the shop without a carburetor, the old one sitting on the ground rusted and useless, when the car was actually drivable before she left it with him. These tirades were full of different angry versions of the “F” word and somehow felt directed at me. I’d listen politely, feeling a bit like I was being held captive then do anything I could to make her forget that I had asked about the bike.
“Is the laundry on the clothesline dry? Do you want me to take it down?”
If there was laundry on the clothesline that was dry, she’d say, “Yeah, what are you waiting for?”
Trying not to sulk, I’d head outside toward the back of the house where the sun baked down on the yard most of the day, and I’d pull stiff jeans and crunchy socks off the line, hitting away the pointy black earwigs that fell from the clothes, a sign that the clothes had been on the line already for a day or more.
I couldn’t say how long it actually took for T-Bill to fix my bike tire, definitely longer than necessary. He had visited the house several times since he took my tire to his shop, but I didn’t always have the nerve to ask if he happened to finish fixing it, fearing the disappointment of being told that he was still working on it. One day when he came over on his motorcycle, I figured I had a good reason for asking. Like I was always told to do when Mom had company, I went outside and wandered around the yard, kicking at green acorns that had fallen from the trees long enough to where Mom wouldn’t send me back out then I went inside. Mom was sitting in her favorite chair and Bill was sitting nearby on the couch.
“What do you want?” Mom asked, noticing I was sitting there quietly
waiting for my turn to speak.
“Um, I was just wondering about my bike,” I said looking at T-Bill with
an encouraging smile.
“Your bike?” he said. “You wanna know about your bike?” He shifted his feet, causing his keys to jingle lightly.
“Yeah. Did you get a chance to fix the tire yet?”
“As a matter of fact, I did, but I haven’t gotten a chance to get over to the gas station to air it up. My air compressor broke down on me.”
“All it needs air?”
“Just some air and it’s ready.”
“Can I do it? I can put the air in, can’t I? I mean, it’s not too hard is it?”
T-Bill laughed, “Nah, it’s not hard. All you gotta do is take the tire to the gas station and use the air there. Just make sure you don’t overfill it, or it will pop.”
“Can I come down later and pick the tire up,” I asked, looking to T-Bill then to my mom for permission.
“Sure, I’ll be back down there after I have some lunch up at the house.”
Lunch and couple of episodes of Star Trek, I knew better than to rush to town.
I strained my ears for an hour or so, listening for the sound of Bill’s motorcyle going by on the road above our house, down the big hill, and toward town. When I thought I heard it go by, I figured it would be safe to head out – slowly. I didn’t even cut through the yard and pass by the Indian grinding rocks just off our property; instead I walked all the way down the driveway, kicking rocks as if I had nowhere important to be. Turning right and heading up the small hill, in front of mom’s house, just above where the pavement ends, I caught myself walking too fast, and forced myself to slow down. I thought about when my brother and I still had a big wheel, we’d take turns going as fast as we could down the hill in front of our to see could skid the longest after getting going real fast and yanking the metal break just before the pavement ended. That hill was where tried out every new bike or remote control toy my brother got for Christmas. Cars didn’t come down the road too often, so it was a pretty safe place to play.
I stopped at the corner of Bodenhammer and looked into the small creek where all the rainwater drained during winter; it was dry and cracked – a Mohawk of blond weeds grew up through the middle. “I want to ride my …,” I forced the words of the bicycle song out of my head because I knew it would get me walking faster, and I was determined not to have to wait around for T-Bill anymore. I slowed my pace again as I neared the larger opening of another creek and looked for the little gleaming red racer snakes that my brother and I often found there, or racing across the street, or sometimes smashed by a car. They were the size of a plastic snake found in a child’s party favor bag, and they were a shiny silver and red with stripes like a sports car. Cool to the touch and friendly, when we’d find them they’d become our pets until Mom would make us put them back near the creek where we found them before they died from being held too much. Because it had already happened, we knew she was right. Relieved that there were no snakes to be found, I kept walking toward town, realizing that I needed to keep my hands free for riding my bike. Where was I going to put a little snake?
I decided to turn onto Main Street early, instead of following Oak Street, which runs parallel and down the big hill past Mean Irene’s house. Main Street was always a bit busier and there wasn’t a sidewalk or much shoulder to walk on for a stretch, but it was better than passing by Irene’s on foot. Who knew what kind of mood she’d be in or whether she liked me on that particular day. It was easy to walk slowly along this stretch on the shoulder, which isn’t really a shoulder at all, and was filled with thistle that scratched and poked your ankles if you went by too fast or carelessly. One block down, only one block from town where the thistles had been cut back. Just then, I noticed that I was now walking at a much faster pace. I allowed myself to run across the street to where the sidewalk began in front of the baseball field then I went back to walking as if I were bored and had no particular place to be. I started to worry about what T-Bill had said about blowing up the tire myself. It could pop if I wasn’t careful. It could pop. I couldn’t stand for that to happen. I just had to be careful; not being careful would mean I’d have to spend all this time waiting on adults all over again.
I thought about an expression that I had heard my mom use many times: “If you want something done right. Do it yourself.” The expression, I knew, didn’t quite fit my situation. All this waiting wasn’t about getting something done right; it was about getting something done at all. If I wanted something done, I was going to have to do it myself. The adults they never took me seriously. What was important to me seemed trivial to them. Without realizing it, I was coming to understand some important things about adults. There were two types: the type who made a bunch of promises and didn’t keep them and the type who kept their promises but took their time making good on them because what kids wanted wasn't as important.
Nearing T-Bill’s shop, I picked up the pace. The heavy door was open, and I could hear T-Bill talking to someone. Seeing me as I walked up to the door he stopped his conversation with some dude with long hair wearing a baseball cap.
“Here for your tire? Let me get it,” he said to me grabbing the tire from a nearby table and handing it to me. “Be careful filling it up.”
“I know -- it could pop. I’ll be careful,” I said, ready to get going again.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come over there with you? I’d just need to finish up here,” he said pointing a wrench toward the guy in the baseball hat.
“I’m sure. Thanks T-Bill,” I said.
“Who’s going to help you put the tire back on?” he asked, as I was about to get on my way.
“I can do it,” I said, trying to picture myself doing it with the same wrench I had found for him when he took the tire off at least a few weeks back.
“Okay,” T-Bill chuckled, “Just be sure to get it on there tight.”
“I will. Thanks. Bye.”
I practically sprinted up the big hill, the biggest in town, on my way to the gas station. My mind was racing and I was out of breath when I got there, but I slowed down enough to get the air in the tire in quick jerky blasts from the compressor hose. When the tire seemed firm enough, but not too tight, I headed for home, only about fifteen minute walk for someone with short legs, walking with purpose.
I began to jog once I got to the last little hill that went down in front of our driveway. I jogged down the hill, careful not to whack my leg with the now heavy tire, then made a left and jogged up the driveway. I could see my bike leaning sadly against the house. I had moved it out of the shed a couple of weeks previous in anticipation of having the tire fixed much sooner. As I got closer, I saw that it was covered in dust and fine yellow pollen that came from the oak trees that towered around the yard. Realizing that I would need the wrench again, I went inside and pulled it out of the drawer where I had stored it, and grabbed an old dirty rag from another kitchen drawer.
“Hi Mom, I’m home,” I shouted toward the empty front room on my way back outside. She must be in the bathroom, or sleeping, I thought to myself.
It must have been about 4:00 or so by this time, but I wasn’t thinking about time. I just wanted back on that bike. The sun would be up for a few more hours and that’s all that mattered. No curfew until the verge of sundown and a bad ass looking bike equaled freedom.
Back at the bike, I quickly went to work unloosening the nut that T-Bill had screwed back on the tire bolt for safekeeping. Sitting down on the ground, with the tire between my knees, I reminded myself to work more slowly because I didn’t want to mess up. If I worked too fast, I knew I risked stripping the bolt, which would keep the nut from staying in place. More slowly now, I turned the wrench, working the nut toward the end of the bolt until it fell off into my hand. I took one finger and wound it around the bolt feeling the raised grooves for myself. They had not been flattened or damaged in any way. Standing up, I set the tire down and turned the bike upside down, as I had seen others do. It stood in place anchored to the ground by the seat and the handlebars. Now getting the tire back on would be easy. I slid the bolt into the U shaped groove and took the nut that I had been holding tightly to in my hand all this time, and I began to screw it back on the bolt. I began working the nut inward with my fingers then picked up the wench to get some leverage on it. And when I thought I gotten that nut on tight enough, I wiped the bike down with an old cloth from the kitchen, nearly restoring it to its original splendor. I did it, I thought. Then I hopped on, keeping my legs up as the front tire wobbled to balance then I peddled off down the driveway. I took a left at the bottom of the driveway, and avoiding the pothole where the pavement ends, I tested the tire on the bumpy gravel. I went down a ways past the first clumpy row of blackberry bushes, made a U-turn then skidded to a stop. Getting back on and turning my legs as hard and as fast as they could go, I sped to the top of the hill just to the first little creek then made a U-turn there -- now for my final test run before riding to town.
I stalled, a bit nervous. What are you worried about? You finally have your bike back; now get on it and ride. Shaking off the nerves, I put both legs back up on the pedals and began to pedal with all my nine year old might. I was flying – past the tree near the Indian grinding stone, past the weeds, past the driveway in front of our house, the oak tree, and wham, hit the pothole where the cement ends at about ten miles per hour. In a split second the tire separated from the bike and I went flying too, right over the handlebars and onto my face. Stunned that I had seen myself flying through the air, a sort of out of body experience, and that my face was now covered in gravel and blood and that my lip had instantly begun to swell, I stayed for a few seconds on my hands and knees half hoping that someone would come to my rescue and half hoping that no one had seen the embarrassing results of my new found do-it-yourself spirit.
Shamed and in pain and crying, I somehow managed to drag the bike to the side of the rode where it wouldn’t get run over and made my way up the driveway to the house. Hearing my cries, my mom came running quickly to the front door.
“Michelle, what happened?” She looked rather surprised to see me bleeding and with a freakishly fat lip.
Though sobbing and hiccupping, I managed to tell her about my mishap. I wanted to be saying any other words than the ones I had to say in that moment, to have to admit that I had screwed up. And by this time my brother had come around and was leaping about, pointing and laughing at my misshapen mouth. Trying not to crack a smile herself, my mom took me inside where she carefully washed the dirt from my wounds, not saying a word about how I should have let an adult help me get that tire on good and tight.