Diagonal Tire Alignment, owner, Steve answers the phone. He talks fast, words blur together, maybe speech impediment.
I need to get my tires switched out, I say.
From what to what? He says.
From summer to winter.
Welcome to the Shit World, he says.
Does he know it’s me or would he say that to any potential customer who called? It’s Katharine, I say. Yeah I know, Katharine Honda. Blue Honda. The shitiest, shit world. My shit customers leave their shit tires and then I have to get rid of them, he says. I know what you mean, I say. I think of how our studio smells of soap, perfume, sweat after people practice there. They leave something of themselves behind.
If I get the answering machine I hear a professional woman’s voice, then Steve calls me back. Diagonal Tires, has nothing to do with location, which is on First Street, across from the tracks, under the overpass, next to a low concrete house, about a mile from the Diagonal Highway.
The place is as messy as Francis Bacon’s art studio. It’s like one of the guys takes a shirt off and throws it on the tires and it sits there, forever, or until it turns into a rag, then threads, then dirt. The little office is crammed with stuff on shelves, up to the ceiling. Piles of paper are stacked in various places, almost falling.
Calendars in plastic wrap featuring monuments of North America are on a shelf about knee level and it’s only November. The cover is the white house and rose garden, and underneath, in 48 point font, extra wide, capital letters, the words, Diagonal Tires Alignment, as if the white house and Steve’s place were somehow connected. I ask how much for the calendar. He says, free.
Soccer dog Buddy slowly comes out from his bed under the desk. Steve says he’s retired. They gave him a series of professional soccer balls when they realized Buddy’s calling. There’s a huge color photo of him, torso twists in mid-air to catch the ball an inch from his mouth.
The new dog growls and barks as I walk up. The new dog had to have both ACL’s replaced, Steve says.
The guy’s bellies loom forward out of their clothes, and their low pants are covered with tire grit. Piles of tires surround them. I ask if I can get them anything from the café. Diagonal Steve always says no and he always talks about the French onion soup there.
I walk to Cheese Importers by way of the tracks. White lace curtains and French music and a pink room with point shoes and Degas paintings; bowls painted in primary colors and yellow and blue tablecloths; Eiffel Tower calendars and books about Babar. Light pours through large curved windows and customers drink red wine and tear pieces from long loaves of bread while they wait for their French meal. I drink tea and then go in a cold room and eat samples of wafer thin crackers and cheese from all over the world.
When I come back from the café there is a huge truck blocking my car with tires piled way up past the frame. A skinny guy groans and sighs as he lifts more tires, cigarette in mouth. His long underwear pokes through holes in the knees of his jeans. Diagonal Steve rolls a couple tires and hoists them up to skinny guy who suddenly has energy. The atmosphere shifts. Steve says maybe that’s high enough and the guy says no we’ll put on the tarp and strap it down. I can’t imagine this truck on the highway.
I put Diagonal Steve in a category and then he climbs his way out. So—I broaden the category slightly and he stretches it again, by liking French onion soup, and getting his calendars on time; knowing what an ACL is, and then waiting for the best vet to return from the Abaco Islands so he can re-place his dog’s knee ligaments. He asks me about the tree by the chain link fence, and talks about seasonal patterns of its growth and what happened to the leaves during the year of the flood. He thinks it’s a Catalpa. He’s in the flood plain.
I never asked if he was all right during the flood, if his building and home were damaged. I look closely and imagine him enjoying soup at the cafe. His face is round, fresh and smooth, and his eyes bright. He has a cute nose.
Near Boston, where I grew up, people generally are speedy and a little grumpy, all business. Underneath there is usually a well of humor. It’s the kind of dry humor that assumes that whatever one touches crumbles to shards and you might as well laugh about it. I used to talk with shop workers to try to make them laugh, to find a link between us. I mean to say, that’s what I did rather than other things. That’s the kind of kid I was. I wandered through town alone during school or after school going into stores, trying to make people laugh.
Now I sit and deal with various emotions. If I remember I try to be kind. In my imagination I give my anger and fear a cup of tea. Hello, hello. I try to give these feelings a big pasture, like Suzuki Roshi says.
Don’t worry about the truck, I say. I’ll wait until you’re finished loading.
Diagonal Steve tells me how he laid bricks to build his shop and points out the tricky parts, which he describes in detail. The tread on your front left was unbalanced so I put it on the back right, he tells me. You should run the studded snows for one more winter and then summer. Run them until there is no tread left, he says. Then leave them here and I’ll get rid of them for you, free.
~ o ~