Terry Bisson


and Other Stories


I was driving with my brother, the preacher, and my nephew, the preacher’s son, on I-65 just north of Bowling Green when we got a flat. It was Sunday night and we had been to visit Mother at the Home. We were in my car. The flat caused what you might call knowing groans since, as the old-fashioned one in my family (so they tell me), I fix my own tires, and my brother is always telling me to get radials and quit buying old tires.

But if you know how to mount and fix tires yourself, you can pick them up for almost nothing.

Since it was a left rear tire, I pulled over to the left, onto the median grass. The way my Caddy stumbled to a stop, I figured the tire was ruined. “I guess there’s no need asking if you have any of that FlatFix in the trunk,” said Wallace.

“Here, son, hold the light,” I said to Wallace Jr. He’s old enough to want to help and not old enough (yet) to think he knows it all. If I’d married and had kids, he’s the kind I’d have wanted.

An old Caddy has a big trunk that tends to fill up like a shed. Mine’s a ’56. Wallace was wearing his Sunday shirt, so he didn’t offer to help while I pulled magazines, fishing tackle, a wooden tool box, some old clothes, a come-along wrapped in a grass sack, and a tobacco sprayer out of the way, looking for my jack. The spare looked a little soft.

The light went out. “Shake it, son,” I said.

It went back on. The bumper jack was long gone, but I carry a little quarter-ton hydraulic. I found it under Mother’s old Southern Livings, 1978-1986. I had been meaning to drop them at the dump. If Wallace hadn’t been along, I’d have let Wallace Jr. position the jack under the axle, but I got on my knees and did it myself. There’s nothing wrong with a boy learning to change a tire. Even if you’re not going to fix and mount them, you’re still going to have to change a few in this life. The light went off again before I had the wheel off the ground. I was surprised at how dark the night was already. It was late October and beginning to get cool. “Shake it again, son,” I said.

It went back on but it was weak. Flickery.

“With radials you just don’t have flats,” Wallace explained in that voice he uses when he’s talking to a number of people at once; in this case, Wallace Jr. and myself. “And even when you do, you just squirt them with this stuff called FlatFix and you just drive on. Three ninety- five the can.”

“Uncle Bobby can fix a tire hisself,” said Wallace Jr., out of loyalty, I presume.

“Himself,” I said from halfway under the car. If it was up to Wallace, the boy would talk like what Mother used to call “a helot from the gorges of the mountains.” But drive on radials.

“Shake that light again,” I said. It was about gone. I spun the lugs off into the hubcap and pulled the wheel. The tire had blown out along the sidewall. “Won’t be fixing this one,” I said. Not that I cared. I have a pile as tall as a man out by the barn.

The light went out again, then came back better than ever as I was fitting the spare over the lugs. “Much better,” I said. There was a flood of dim orange flickery light. But when I turned to find the lug nuts, I was surprised to see that the flashlight the boy was holding was dead. The light was coming from two bears at the edge of the trees, holding torches. They were big, three-hundred-pounders, standing about five feet tall. Wallace Jr. and his father had seen them and were standing perfectly still. It’s best not to alarm bears.

I fished the lug nuts out of the hubcap and spun them on. I usually like to put a little oil on them, but this time I let it go. I reached under the car and let the jack down and pulled it out. I was relieved to see that the spare was high enough to drive on. I put the jack and the lug wrench and the flat into the trunk. Instead of replacing the hubcap, I put it in there too. All this time, the bears never made a move. They just held the torches, whether out of curiosity or helpfulness, there was no way of knowing. It looked like there may have been more bears behind them, in the trees.

Opening three doors at once, we got into the car and drove off. Wallace was the first to speak. “Looks like bears have discovered fire,” he said.

When we first took Mother to the Home almost four years (forty-seven months) ago, she told Wallace and me she was ready to die. “Don’t worry about me, boys,” she whispered, pulling us both down so the nurse wouldn’t hear. “I’ve drove a million miles and I’m ready to pass over to the other shore. I won’t have long to linger here.” She drove a consolidated school bus for thirty-nine years. Later, after Wallace left, she told me about her dream. A bunch of doctors were sitting around in a circle discussing her case. One said, “We’ve done all we can for her, boys, let’s let her go.” They all turned their hands up and smiled. When she didn’t die that fall she seemed disappointed, though as spring came she forgot about it, as old people will.

In addition to taking Wallace and Wallace Jr. to see Mother on Sunday nights, I go myself on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I usually find her sitting in front of the TV, even though she doesn’t watch it. The nurses keep it on all the time. They say the old folks like the flickering. It soothes them down.

“What’s this I hear about bears discovering fire?” she said on Tuesday. “It’s true,” I told her as I combed her long white hair with the shell comb Wallace had brought her from Florida. Monday there had been a story in the Louisville Courier-Journal, and Tuesday one on NBC or CBS Nightly News. People were seeing bears all over the state, and in Virginia as well. They had quit hibernating, and were apparently planning to spend the winter in the medians of the interstates. There have always been bears in the mountains of Virginia, but not here in western Kentucky, not for almost a hundred years. The last one was killed when Mother was a girl. The theory in the Courier-Journal was that they were following I-65 down from the forests of Michigan and Canada, but one old man from Allen County (interviewed on nationwide TV) said that there had always been a few bears left back in the hills, and they had come out to join the others now that they had discovered fire.

“They don’t hibernate anymore,” I said. “They make a fire and keep it going all winter.”

“I declare,” Mother said. “What’ll they think of next!” The nurse came to take her tobacco away, which is the signal for bedtime.

Every October, Wallace Jr. stays with me while his parents go to camp. I realize how backward that sounds, but there it is. My brother is a Minister (House of the Righteous Way, Reformed) but he makes two thirds of his living in real estate. He and Elizabeth go to a Christian Success Retreat in South Carolina, where people from all over the country practice selling things to one another. I know what it’s like not because they’ve ever bothered to tell me, but because I’ve seen the Revolving Equity Success Plan ads late at night on TV.

The school bus let Wallace Jr. off at my house on Wednesday, the day they left. The boy doesn’t have to pack much of a bag when he stays with me. He has his own room here. As the eldest of our family, I hung on to the old home place near Smiths Grove. It’s getting run-down, but Wallace Jr. and I don’t mind. He has his own room in Bowling Green, too, but since Wallace and Elizabeth move to a different house every three months (part of the Plan), he keeps his .22 and his comics, the stuff that’s important to a boy his age, in his room here at the home place. It’s the room his dad and I used to share.

Wallace Jr. is twelve. I found him sitting on the back porch that overlooks the interstate when I got home from work. I sell crop insurance.

After I changed clothes I showed him how to break the bead on a tire two ways, with a hammer, and by backing a car over it. Like making sorghum, fixing tires by hand is a dying art. The boy caught on fast, though. “Tomorrow I’ll show you how to mount your tire with the hammer and a tire iron,” I said.

“What I wish is I could see the bears,” he said. He was looking across the field to I-65, where the northbound lanes cut off the corner of our field. From the house at night, sometimes the traffic sounds like a waterfall.

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