A Lack of Practical Skills

With friends, Michael pretended that he understood basic car repair, but he was one of the least mechanically inclined people in his neighborhood. He joked to his colleagues in the English department that if an apocalypse ever actually occurred, he could be the first to be sacrificed for the greater good. That said, he reasoned that changing the brakes on his wife’s 2008 Jeep Liberty couldn’t be that difficult because it was a common repair according to a brightly colored infographic on DIYGARAGEGUIDES.COM. Brakes, it said, were the easiest repair behind batteries, windshield wipers, and an oil change.

Larry, his neighbor and retired lineman that fixed cars in his backyard, frequently came over in the evenings to shoot the shit and drink a few beers, but they were from very different worlds. Larry was missing a few teeth, but what his mouth lacked physically, it gained in an ability to tell stories. Michael pretended to know things about cars, but Larry spent most of the conversation not paying attention to him, and instead, he’d get lost in the cars he’d tore down this week blaming the engineers for the things he considered to be design flaws.

“Why don’t you let me do those brakes for you?” he said, eyeing the Jeep in the driveway dirt.

Mike swallowed his beer, “you don’t think I can do it.” The accusation hung fresh from his lips. 

I never said that, but I could just do it faster. Probably safer too,” as Larry said the last bit, he looked over at Mike to see his lips purse. You know what? I probably couldn’t get to the job for a few weeks anyway. You said that she needs this done soon, right?” 

Yeah, she’s got a shopping day Saturday.” 

They drank a few more beers and discussed things that the other knew very little about before Larry finally stood up and said, goodnight.” When he was almost in his yard, he called back, Let me know, if you need an extra set of hands tomorrow.” 

Mike’s knowledge of the auto parts stores in town was limited. Larry had connections at a few of the chains but suggested that he avoid them because they were not great at helping the less-knowledgeable customers. If you knew exactly what you needed, they’d get it for you at a reasonable price, but if you weren’t sure what engine or trim you had, mistakes were bound to happen. Having dealt with those chains himself, Mike could confirm. Most recently, he wanted to get wiper blades for his Wrangler, but he was sold blades for the alternate model in his crossover year instead. 

At the counter of McCarthy Auto Parts, the clerk seemed to have confidence in Mike’s abilities because every repair is easy with the right tools, at least that’s what he said. Michael bought into it. He had a stack of the blue automotive towels, low VOC brake parts cleaner (whatever that meant), ultra-synthetic grease, 10 mil-thick black nitrile gloves, an electric impact wrench with accompanying deep-well sockets, and a stool with little magnets built in to secure loose nuts during a job. All of this was in addition to the four rotors and two sets of brake pads. When the clerk set the brake parts on the counter, Michael almost asked don’t I need four boxes of these?” referring to two boxes of brake pads, but he was sure the guy knew what he was doing. 

In the weeks leading up to the repair, he watched multiple YouTube videos from TotalCarGuy, BackYardJeeper, and others but those videos weren’t going to change his breaks. TotalCarGuy’s video had the Jeep in the air and when he pulled the old parts off, everything was still sterling and clean.  

This cannot be the way that most cars are,” Michael muttered to himself as he clicked  

around to find another option. BackYardJeeper’s video seemed more relatable, but the POV was like a bad horror film; the iPhone camera alternated between a nervously shaking left hand focused on a chubby finger and being precariously wedged in the wheel well while two sped-up hands wrenched feverishly.  

The next morning, he angled the car under the shade of the maple tree covering the gravel driveway, disconnected the battery, and wedged wood blocks under the back tires only to remove them when he realized he’d need to take the tires off. Only after he jacked up the Jeep’s front tires and raised the jack stands under the control arms, did the fact occur to him that he hadn’t broken the lug nuts free. It was only a minor setback, but it made him feel stupid. One of the videos, 4x4Money’s Jeep Brakes Done EZ,” had a breaker bar to help free the lug nuts, but he had just spent several hundred on a brand-new electric impact wrench. 

Fuck it,” he thought as he put his new electric air ratchet onto the first lug nut and pressed the button the wrong direction. 

Lefty Loosey, Righty Tighty,” he said to himself over and over. He considered lowering the car, but that would add an extra forty-five minutes. He had the sunlight, but not the patience. He pushed hard on the car’s passenger door. He pushed again. The car felt stable.  

You need any help?” Marcie asked through an open window. 

Nah, just don’t let the A/C out like that,” he called back. 

Just don’t let your hot air out,” she called back, shutting the window. 

He thought about calling back, That doesn’t even make sense!” but BackYardJeeper suggested that cars parked outside might have more rust to break so the entire job might take longer if they weren’t sprayed first, whatever that meant.  

Michael’s confidence was tied to the directions laid out in the video. He’d had all the tools and was making fair progress, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. He imagined Marcie traveling at highway speeds, listening to Michael Bublé, when suddenly the front left wheel casually rolls away from the car, causing her to careen into the median and then into oncoming traffic. All while sparks fly both from the car and from the metal on the asphalt.  

His confidence rose when he tightened the last bolt on the front brakes and was able to stand up. His back was starting to ache, and this stool wasn’t making it easier. He had long convinced himself that it would’ve been worse on the ground though. He pulled a mouthful of water from the glass Marcie had brought out long enough ago that the ice had melted leaving calcium particles behind. 

When he moved to the back tires, he calculated that within a few hours, given minor rust, the job could be done, but it was short-lived. He thought about removing the jack stands from the front of the car before lifting the back but decided that it would be faster to finish all four brakes and then put the wheels back on. The process was mostly the same as the front brakes; the clips on the brake pads were a different design though. After removing the old pads and unbolting the brake caliper, Mike had to free the old rotor by hammering on it. Although the hammering hadn’t been a big deal on the front rotors, within minutes of the backs, the car had started rocking. Mike hadn’t noticed it until it was already too late, and the motion caused the front of the Jeep to nosedive into the driveway dirt. Wearing a faux sense of calm, he decided to walk into the house and never show his face in the neighborhood again. Inside, he panicked. He broke into a manic expression, I can’t believe I did that. I’m so fucking stupid.” He paced the kitchen, his hands to his head, Why did I ever think I could pull this off?” 

Marcie, who had been putting their youngest down for a nap came into the kitchen, What is going on! You’re going to wake everyone up!” 

The car fell off the jacks. I’m not sure what to do. I don’t have a way to lift it.” 

She put on her shoes, grabbed her keys, and walked outside. Without saying anything more, he turned away from the door, determined not to face his mess. He filled another glass with water and drank it slowly, staring out the window at the side yard. The sun, still out, felt lower and more yellow in the sky. Daylight, he thought, was running out. He wondered what Marcie was doing outside; is she trying to fix my mistake? Is she mad at me? A slight breeze picked up in the limbs of the tree.  

After what felt like several minutes of standing at the window, his oldest daughter came up and gave him a hug and he felt the shame of his actions, Accidents happen, Dad,” she said.  

He exhaled. She didn’t deserve to be yelled at, Yeah, but…” he stopped. They had been pushing her to keep her negativity in check and that started with him. Yeah,” he replied setting the glass in the sink, reciprocating the hug before going back outside.  

Once the car fell, he didn’t even inspect the potential damage. Inside, he pictured chemicals pooling, snapped metal, and thousands of dollars in added costs. He also realized that either Larry would have to bail him out or he’d have to explain to a real mechanic what happened, and either way, the shame of judgment came over him. He imagined them laughing at him; What an idiot!” they’d say as they replaced what were perfectly good parts.  

He had been searching YouTube for videos about lifting a fallen car, but his search results were not tailored to his query. He scrolled through BackYardJeeper’s video list, but he hadn’t made that kind of mistake. If he had, he certainly hadn’t posted about it.  

In the yard, Marcie’s question sparked some hope in him, And we don’t have any other jacks? What about the ones in the other cars?” She pressed the unlock button on her keyfob to open the hatch.  

As he dug the factory scissor jacks from the other cars and started cranking, he saw the cause, the AutoTech jack stand from Walmart had collapsed under the weight of the car. His first move, Marcie suggested, should be to get the other jack out from under the car. He strategically placed the emergency jacks at points on the frame and carefully turned the handles, alternating from side to side until he could free the failed jack stands and fourth jack.  

Releasing the impact wrench’s button as the last lug nut was tight, Michael stood up and pushed his hair back. The suspension looked sound and wasn’t busted or obviously bent, but now it was time to test everything. He tightened the wheels to the recommended specs, lowered the car the rest of the way, reconnected the battery, closed the hood, and got into the driver’s seat. When it started, he exhaled, buckled his seatbelt, and backed the car out of the driveway and into the road facing the sun, so far, so good,” he said.

Photo by Nina Mercado on Unsplash.

Peter Faziani

Peter Faziani is the editor of Red Flag Poetry, a small press and poetry postcard journal. He also has two collections of poetry published. His first book, Warning Shots, was released in 2017 and was followed up by The City as Modern Mausoleum in 2019. He has poetry and fiction published in in several places, most recently in The Red Branch Review and Rock Salt Journal. He teaches 10th grade English as well as at Michigan State University. Find him on Instagram and Threads.