A few days ago Tor asked me if I wanted to have dinner at his parents’ house. I said yes, I would, but my taillight was broken, so, if I was going to meet them all out there later—he works right near their house—I was going to have to get it fixed.
“When did your taillight break?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Like two weeks before Christmas?”
“Like—a month ago?” he said.
“I asked you to help me fix it like 100 times.”
Tor just sniffed. Then he said, “How did you live with a broken taillight for three weeks?”
I told him I just hadn’t gone anywhere after dark. “And sometimes I borrowed M.’s car,” I said. M. is our housemate. He works within walking distance and only uses his car like once a week, when he goes to Sacramento to play Warhammer.
“Wow,” Tor said. “Just, wow.” He shook his head. He tilted his head back and laughed aloud. “WOW!” he shouted again. Then he went and got his stuff for work, his lunch in a little glass container, his gym clothes, his phone and his Filson bag with all its handy compartments stocked with unchewed pens and labeled notebooks, and a laptop with a desktop screen as clean and well-ordered as a French civic garden.
Before he left he put his hand on my shoulder and looked at me, well, if not exactly with great tenderness, then with fortifying confidence. “Just get a new bulb and fix it, it will be easy,” he said.
“That is exactly what everyone I have told about my broken taillight has been saying to me for weeks,” I called after him as he got in his car. “It’s not going to be easy. Mark my words.”
I did some work and thought about how to begin. I knew about the existence and the location of auto supply stores. Would I just walk into one of these places and say, “Help?”
I thought about watching a video, but they always make it worse: some guy with a mustache emerges from his airplane hangar of a garage and says, “Hi, I’m Don, this fix couldn’t be simpler! Are you ready?” And for a moment maybe I think, “Sure, Don, let’s do it,” but then Don produces an enormous toolkit and by the time he opens the thing I have passed out, as some do at the sight of blood.
As luck would have it, Tor’s mother Liese swung by to get something out of our basement. “Maybe Tor didn’t fix it for you because I always fix things on my own,” she said when I told her what I was preparing to do, and how I wished Tor had already done it.
I wasn’t sure quite what she meant by this. like, “maybe Tor expects the same from you,” which, no, he would have no evidence to support that. Or maybe she was trying to encourage me. Understand, I don’t mind the idea of changing my taillight. It just sounded really hard.
At any rate, I realized it would behoove me to harness Liese’s interest in being the kind of woman who fixes her own taillight. We went together to evaluate the situation.
All on my own I had already correctly located the black plastic panel on the left side of the trunk under which my burnt-out lightbulb presumably resided but I wasn’t sure how one might go about removing it. Liese removed it in a jiffy and then suddenly her hand was full of wires in a white plastic housing, as if the car had just given birth. “This is what you need to fix,” she said. There were two little bulbs there, stuck on little bulb pedestals. I pulled them off, I put them back on, as easily as one might remove and replace a hat.
This was so exciting! It was easy!
With my dog Merle in the back seat, looking into my rearview mirror with her eternally helpless expression, I drove to the auto supply store. I pulled up next to an old white Datsun pickup. Its hood was raised, and a 30-ish dude with blonde dreadlocks was bent over its engine. He was not happy. “Why the motherfuckin’ shit did you do this to me?” he moaned, and shook a screwdriver at the sky.
There was a long line inside. The sole clerk and his customer, both older, gruff-seeming dudes, seemed to have arrived at some sort of impasse wherein the clerk shook his head at his computer and the customer just stared at the floor. A young clerk came out from the back and we all became expectant, but then he just belched loudly and walked out the door. After a while a third clerk appeared, probably fifty, with pin-straight brown hair and a no-nonsense air about her. Ordinarily situations like this make me impatient but as I was finally seeing to the broken taillight, I felt calm and virtuous. The man behind me, however, kept sighing and shifting his weight so that the keys attached to his belt jangled and the nylon of his jacket rubbed audibly. Ninety seconds into the woman’s appearance on the scene he could take it no longer. “You really want five bucks for this?” I looked behind me. He was about 70, with a red face. He was holding a copy of Gold County Auto Trader.
Very exciting! How was this going to go? I mean, if the Gold County Auto Trader costs five bucks, I mean, isn’t that just how it works?
But the woman behind the counter said, “Well, it’s the Christmas edition and Christmas is over so yeah, go on and take it.”
“Thank you,” the man said, sounding not at all thankful. He strode off, muttering to himself, whacking his leg with the coiled-up publication.
The woman finally said she would help the next person. “Hi, how are you?,” I said as I approached. Big mistake. This woman replied “Fine, how are you?” as if I had actually said, “Do you want to get your ass kicked?” and she were replying “Do you want to get your ass kicked?”
Oh well, I thought, no matter, because I had my two bulbs in hand and soon I would be on my merry way! “My taillight is out, one of these I guess is the taillight, I have no idea.” I set both bulbs down on the counter, assuming I had washed my hands of the entire matter.
She asked me what kind of car I had and I said I had a 2008 Yaris or maybe it was a 2007, and it was also entirely possible it was a 2006. She looked at her computer and then she said, “Neither of these bulbs is your taillight.”
I was both devastated and didn’t really have the resources to understand what she was saying. I explained to her that someone had told me I should just take these bulbs in and one of them was the one I wanted and that she was supposed to tell me, hopefully.
“So your turn signal is broken.”
“No, it’s not my turn signal.”
“Because this is for your turn signal,” she said.
“No, it’s not my turn signal.”
This went on for much longer than I care to admit. We finally headed out to the vehicle to get to the bottom of things. This is probably a good time to mention that Liese had probably told me the bulb I needed to replace was not one of the two I had in my hand, but I had so badly wanted it to be easy that I hadn’t really heard her. Sure enough, the clerk pointed out that above the space where the wonderfully easy-access turn signal and brake light shared the master bedroom, if you will, there was a sort of en suite bathroom where the tail light made its home, and access seemed like it should be simple but it was not. There was this thing you were supposed to turn. It would not turn.
“Goddam fucking shit,” the Datsun owner screamed. I could smell from ten feet away that like many hippies, he smelled of garlic, kratom, and rage. He was shaking a different tool now, I have no idea what kind.
The woman and I each took one more turn with the thing that would not turn and it continued to not turn. At this point my feeling was that I was basically going to have to buy another car. We went inside—she said I should just buy the bulb in the event that I ever succeeded in extracting the old one—and then she tried to explain to me how I should try to slip my car key into the not-turning thing and when my eyes got very wide and alarmed-looking she started to draw a picture. I became light-headed. “I am really trying to understand, and I appreciate your help so much,” I said. “But I can’t possibly articulate the extent to which I am really bad at understanding these things.”
“I have two daughters,” she said, “So you can’t pull the woman card with me.”
I felt really stupid. I wished I knew what she meant about sticking my key into the thing. I wish her drawing did not just look like to me like a bunch of lines, or maybe a cow. I must have expressed more frustration as I was purchasing my $2.38 bulb because before I left she said to me, “You’ll be fine. You’ll be fine. You’ll be fine.”
Datsun guy was working quietly as I left.
Inspiration struck. Next door was some sort of auto repair shop. I needed new weatherproofing or stripping or whatever that stuff is, that keeps rain from getting into your car. So I’d go get that and after I’d ordered it, I’d say, actually could you please look at my taillight, sir, please, and then he’d fix it. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t just started with this.
The clerk had white hair and a friendly smile and was happy to help. But after about ten minutes trying to wrest the little light bulb out of its berth he said, “The people who make these cars never work on them.” Plus, this place didn’t do body work, they were a tire shop.
“No one tells me anything,” I said.
As I drove all the way the fuck to the mall edge of Grass Valley, exactly what I didn’t want to do but somehow knew was in store for me when beginning this errand two and a half hours ago, I had more time to feel bad about what the first clerk had said to me about playing the woman card.
I thought about high school physics, and how the very first lesson, on vectors, had astonished me with its utter impenetrability. How did anyone know in which direction a weight’s weight went? Didn’t it go—all over the place? I remembered the pained look in my teacher’s eyes when I asked him this, and going to the vice-principal with my “drop class” form for her to sign. I remembered my friend Frank standing in front of a shochu still, trying to explain to me how it worked and me just being like, “Never mind.” This wasn’t the woman card. I mean, I have known all my life that this looks like the woman card, and have tried not to pull it, but really, this is just the ME card.
Nothing interesting happened in Grass Valley, unless you call it interesting that it took a man whose job it is to work on cars two tools and at least eighteen minutes to replace my taillight. He had to remove the entire red plastic light cover thingy. I offered him ten dollars. He refused it and told me to write a review.
“There was a popular article this week about why millennials don’t do errands,” I said to Merle on the way home. “And anyway, I’m not a millennial, in case you couldn’t tell from the fact that I don’t give a fuck about anything and I have never seen The Little Mermaid. But I can tell you why I avoid errands, Merle. It’s because they’re always a giant pain in the ass.”
Later on, I said the same thing to Tor, more or less. “He had to take off my whole – plastic red thing. He had to use – bolt turners.”
Tor loved this. I haven’t seen him laugh so hard in months. “Bolt turners!” he shouted. “Ahhahahaaha. Bolt turners!”
Dinner was delicious: mashed potatoes, adobo chicken, and broccoli. A friend of Tor’s dad’s was there, a man who can be prickly, but who is mostly just hilarious. After he had a couple drinks he told me his generation had it the worst. “They took everything from us,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” I said. He was born in 1938.
“Everything,” he repeated in a whisper.
He looked very sad and sincere so I just said, “I know.”