Where the rubber meats the road--and no, I didn't misspell anything

35 PSI

by CA Smith © 2004

"Give your career a boost," the ad read. "Tire and battery men needed. No experience necessary. Apply in person."

"I don't know anything about cars and can't drive a stick," I told the manager.

"No problem," he answered. "There's no 'I' or 'you' here. It's only 'us' back in the shop."

I nodded. I never saw him again.

I passed the drug test and reported to work the next day.

"You're going to get those dirty today," Anthony said, pointing to my unscuffed shoes. "Wear boots tomorrow, if you got any."

Anthony was a handsome, bullet-headed black man in his 20's. You could see the outline of his biceps through his shirt. I was a white man 10 years his senior and my arms hung like dried twigs. A week earlier, I'd been laid off as a loan officer at a bank. My portfolio wasn't the best, but it wasn't the worst either--not by a long shot. So when my bank merged with a bigger one, I wasn't too afraid. But the day after the deal went through, I was told to clean out my desk. I'd been on the short list from the get go.

Anthony drove in our first ticket. It was a beat-up, rusted-out SUV filled with empty soda cans and potato chip bags.

Anthony declared, "I tell you, man, the customer is dissing us. He's the type who goes to the doctor wearing dirty underwear!"

I laughed.

"Let's break it down! Customer wants four new tires."

I yanked and stacked the tires as Anthony went around prying off the hubcaps and air-gunning the lugs. He popped the valves and demonstrated how to break the beads using a wicked piece of hydraulic equipment called a tire machine.

"Watch it now, son," he said. "This damn thing will separate your leg from your body if you're not careful."

I rolled the old tires to the back and came back with my palms beading with blood.

"You got bit," Anthony said, grabbing my hands. "Watch out for those old steel belts. The fibers catch flesh like Velcro. You gonna be OK?"


Anthony showed me how to use the tire machine to put new rubber on the rims. The choreography was intricate and dangerous. Anthony assured me I'd catch on.

He inspected the SUV's undercarriage. "Customer needs brakes," he announced.

As if on cue, the customer walked over. He was a flabby middle-aged guy in flip flops who looked like he spent his days in a climate-controlled office somewhere selling something over the phone. Somebody like me. He had his two little daughters with him. Anthony showed him the worn pads.

"Duly noted," the man said. "I'll come back later."

"They're worn to the metal, mister," Anthony replied.

"Duly noted," the man said again.

I looked at his kids. They were twins and kept their hands gathered at their chins. Joey was about their age. My wife turned into a fat slob after having Joey and then suddenly she decided to get in shape again. She worked at it like she used to work over a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. She came from good stock and when she got to looking good again she ran off with the dentist, leaving me and Joey behind.

I silently wished the twins luck. Maybe their mother drove them around in a car with brakes--if she was still around, that is.

As the tickets came in, Anthony had me doing more and more on my own, easing me into the job. My confidence was building and I was actually beginning to enjoy myself. "Look at me!" I thought. "I'm gonna be a mechanic! No more paperwork for me." I felt it was going to be my first honest job.


But it wasn't an accident, my coming here. The man in the trench coat told me to. He'd knocked on my door the night after I got tanked at the bank. Joey was in bed and I was nursing a beer in front of the TV in my bedroom with the sound off, watching porno. I opened the door and there was this guy in a money-green trench coat with the collar turned up against the drizzle. He wore a snap-brim fedora and wrap-around sunglasses.

He told me to turn off the porch light. I did--he exuded an authority a person like me can't resist. He held out the newspaper ad for tiremen and told me to go there and get a job. I showed a little backbone and asked him who the hell was he. He whipped out a roll of ten one hundred dollar bills and told me there would be more to come if I reported to the tire shop in the morning. He dropped the wad at my feet and turned around and left.

I spent a sleepless night, tossing and turning. He's a drug smuggler, I concluded. He somehow finds out who's desperate and then offers them a lot of cash to plant drugs in the cars of unsuspecting people. Yeah, that's his game, I figured.

In the morning, I had no intention of asking for a job. But then the paternity testing service called. It turned out little Joey wasn't mine. I poured Joey a bowl of fruit loops and studied the little bastard, remembering how my mom had gushed "he looks just like you" over and over again when we brought him home from the hospital. Was she out to get me too? Fuck it, I said to myself, I'm turning drug runner.


At 3 PM, Anthony announced our shift was up. I headed for sink to wash the grim off my hands and forearms.

"What's that, bro?'

It was Anthony. His tone was different - menacing and mad. "Listen, midget. Nobody tells me how to do my job. You got that?"

I looked over. Anthony was toe to toe with a small white guy I'd seen working in the shop. His name tag said Paul and he had yellow-dyed hair with dark roots showing. He looked about twenty.

"What's that?" Paul asked.

"You go manage somebody else," Anthony answered. "You hear me? Leave me alone."

I looked away.

Anthony and I ended up at a burger joint for a late lunch. Anthony had a double decker with extra cheese and I had the chicken sandwich.

"Is there a lot of turn-over at the shop?" I asked.

"You're the fifth new guy this month," he answered.

"No kidding? Why does everybody leave?"

"I dunno. The last guy said it was too stressful."

"I can see that. Every car is different. Different lugs, different weight balancers."

"It's not stressful. It just gets boring, that's all."

"Are you from here?" I asked.

"Born here. Lived in the same house all my life."

I told him all the places I'd lived.

"I like Panama City, Florida," Anthony said, turning wistful. "I'm thinking of moving there. After you're trained, I'm going down there on vacation to give the place a real good look see."

"Really?" I said, apprehensively.

"Yeah, especially if things don't work out up here."

"What do you mean?"

"The position of shop manager is open and I'm hoping to get it. If I don't . . . "

Anthony was my buddy, my pal, and I didn't want him to leave. I resolved to cut him on my drug deal as soon as things got rolling.

Driving home, I stopped off at the bank. It was a branch of the one I used to work for. I still had on my back-belt and I was covered in carbon and sweat. Nobody recognized me standing there. I looked at the tellers behind the counter and at the managers sitting at their desks. I felt the air conditioning on my skin and noticed the clean carpet beneath my feet. I straightened my posture, put my hands on my hips and thought how weak and tepid banking was compared to the automotive repair/drug smuggling racket. I felt good. I walked over to where the deposit slips were kept. I grabbed one and penned in my name and the figure $1,000 for the amount. But then I remembered outlaws don't use savings accounts. I dropped the slip in the waste can and left. Good riddance, I thought, smiling to myself.


That night, the man in the trench coat came back.

"Douse the light," he said, pointing at the porch fixture above his head.

"Why don't you come inside instead," I suggested.

"Douse the light."

I did. He was carrying a duffel bag. It sagged with something heavy. Drugs, I thought. A shit load.

"Is that the drugs?" I asked.

"Who said anything about drugs?"

"Nobody. I just assumed "

"You assumed wrong."

He unzipped the bag and held out something round and about the size of a baseball. It looked like a vegetable of some sort, an overgrown tulip bulb or something.

"I want you to put these inside the tires. One per tire. Four per car."

"What is it?"

"Does it matter?" He pulled a roll of bills out of the front pocket of his trench coat and gave it to me. "That's ten g's you're holding. Ten more when you've planted the whole bag."

"What do you mean exactly--inside the tires?"

"Throw one in the air space between the rubber and the rim before filling the tire with air. Use 35 pounds per square inch. No more, no less."

"What if the tire says 40 PSI instead?"

"35 PSI, no more, no less. Don't let anybody see you."

"That bag looks heavy."

"There's enough here to do twenty five cars."

"Won't they unbalance the tires? There's a machine where we spin the tires to see if "

"No, don't worry about it."

"Won't those things make a racket when the customer drives away?"


"What are they?"

"Don't worry about it."

I looked at the bag. "Ten more thou when it's empty, huh?"

"That's right," he replied. "One more thing. Have it done by the end of this week."

"What's the hurry?"

"What's it to you?"

"Who are you?"

"I'm the guy giving you the easiest money of your life."


I had no intention of following through, but the next morning I was casually reviewing my mutual fund statement when I saw the bank had withdrawn their contributions from my accounts. It seemed I hadn't yet vested before they kicked me out on my ass. I was out a cool fifteen thousand.

I told Joey to hurry with his cereal.

"Why, daddy?" he asked.

I winced. "Because daddy has some important business at his new job. He has a special assignment."

I ditched the duffel bag in my locker and studied the shop schedule posted on the wall. Somebody had penciled through Anthony's name and reassigned him to the afternoon shift. I walked out unto the shop floor apprenhensively.

"Hey!" somebody shouted.

It was Paul, hanging out the window of a car. "You're working for me today."

He got out and hoisted the car on the lift. "Take the tires off," he ordered.

I pried off a hubcap. He handed me an air gun.

Brrp! Brrp! The nut wouldn't budge. "It's stuck," I said.

"Look at what you're doing."

I looked at the nut.

"Don't look at the nut, look at the gun. The GUN for chrissakes."

I looked at the gun.

"Do you see anything wrong?"


"You have it on forward. FORWARD!"

By lunch, I was a nervous wreck. I tried to lose Paul, but he followed me into the break room. "OK, lunch over," he announced. "Go work with Paul now."


"The other Paul in bay 10."

The other Paul was twice the size of yellow-haired Paul. He had shortly cropped light brown hair with zits peppering the outline of his face and lazy slits for eyes.

"Paul said I should help you," I said.

He looked at me and sighed. "Go ahead and lift that truck."

Big Paul's bay used a drive-on hoist. I bounced down on my hams and studied it.

"Whatz wrong?" he asked.

"What keeps the truck from rolling off?"

"How the fuck would I know? Just lift the damn thing!"

I looked at him.

"You haven't been around tools before have you?" he asked.


"You can't be tentative around them. If you hang back, they'll hurt you."

He sauntered off and went outside, lighting up a cigarette. I hoisted the truck against my better judgment and began taking off the tires. I stacked them in a nice, neat pile. My heart skipped a beat when I saw Paul fling away his cigarette and come running back into the shop.

"This is a rotation job! Didn't you check the ticket? Which tire came from where? Go get the ticket!"

I got the ticket, but he ignored it. "The customer is sitting in the waiting room. Tell me what you're gonna do now! Huh? What? You're fucked, that's what!"

My vision grew red, adrenaline spritzed into my veins. "No, you're fucked," I shouted back. "Fuck you and the yellow-haired midget too."

I walked across the shop floor and went into the locker room to get my things. I changed my shoes and was going to abandon the duffel bag but decided against it. I grabbed it and pushed through the swinging doors back unto the floor again.

Big Paul hadn't moved. He shouted, "Hey, cunt hole! Over here, now!"

Customers scattered. I kept walking. I walked outside and headed for the dumpster. I spotted yellow-haired Paul slashing the tires on my ten year old Toyota Tercel. I was three steps before tossing the bag into the dumpster and bugging out, when I felt a meaty hand grip my shoulder. I dipped from under it and spun around.

"Whoa there, bro." It was Anthony.

"Shit," I said, exhaling a bolus of air from my lungs. "I thought you were one of the Pauls."

"They're not going to mess with you anymore."

"You know what's happening?"

"Yeah. I just came in and was clued in, but I knew it was coming."

"The midget is out there slashing my tires, Anthony."



"He'll replace them."

"Oh yeah?"


"What's their problem, Anthony?"

"You landed in the middle of a little office politics, that's all. I showed interest in you and well . . ."

"This is a fucking tire shop, Anthony. This isn't the west wing of the White House for chrissakes!"

He shrugged his shoulders. "You're a banker. Some people might say you're slumming, taking somebody else's job."

"I'm an ex-banker, Anthony. I was fired. I have my kid to feed." I winced at that one--somebody else's kid, that is.

He shrugged. "I know. I'm just telling you how it might look to some people, that's all."

"Fuck them!"

Anthony cracked a grin. He pointed at my duffel bag. "What's in there?" he asked.

He knew all about it and had a bag full of bulbs, too. The man in the trench coat had visited him as well. We planted five cars that afternoon.

"Panama City, Florida," Anthony kept extolling. "Oh Lordy, take me to Panama City!"


He never made it. A week later the apocalypse dawned.

I saw my first early in the morning. I first heard it on the patio outside my bedroom window. Looking out, I saw what I thought was a seven foot praying mantis eating a dog. I was wrong on both counts: it was a space alien eating my landlady's bloody torso. In any case, I knew coming up with the rent wasn't going to be a problem anymore--for anybody.

It turned out Anthony and I weren't the only patsies. Tiremen around the world had been recruited to help the aliens gestate. Their embryos needed heat, motion, hydrocarbons, 35 pounds per square inch, and 7 days. Then they came out. It didn't matter if the car or truck was parked in the driveway or barreling down the highway at 85 miles per hour, they came out. And began stalking. It was carnage, a real horror show.

I didn't feel guilty. I'd given up on the world beforehand. In fact, I felt a little proud--I'd been a player in the most significant event in human history. Not bad for an ex-junior loan officer out on his ass.

My day of reckoning came soon enough though. Joey and I had barricaded ourselves inside the apartment, living on rations of fruit loops and tap water. The first one came crashing through the sliding glass door. The thing glistened with puss and stunk like shit. Its antennae shot around the room like bull whips, overturning furniture and smashing the TV console. It boiled down to this - if I shoved Joey at the thing, it would buy me time, maybe only 5 minutes, but time nonetheless. Otherwise . . .

I guess you know what I did. Don't you?


Used to work for a company that tested the rubber used in tires. Never saw any bulbs. Saw a whole bunch of badly-made tires, though. Those could be as dangerous as the aliens mentioned here. One hint: buy Michelin; they're expensive, but worth it. And post your comments on our BBS, please. -GM

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