NONFICTION February 7, 2020

Consider the Lug Nuts

A faint noise, at first, beneath my feet on the passenger side of the car. Balsam fir swish by the window in a blue-green blur. I glance at the steely expanse of the reservoir as we pass, at the car-less highway rolling on ahead. The closest town, twelve miles away, is named for a tool designed to fight forest fires. Not a great place to break down. I try to convince myself the wobble is uneven pavement. I try to tell myself the rumble isn’t getting louder. 

I finally ask Meg, who is driving, if she hears it too. She does. She slows, then speeds back up. The noise, the bumpiness beneath my feet, slows, speeds with the wheels. We’re tourists here on New York State’s Tug Hill Plateau, a day’s drive from my home in northwestern Pennsylvania. Meg has flown in from Germany, where we both grew up, to talk by woods and lakes, to nurture a college friendship kindled thirty-five years ago. Now we both listen, our talk swallowed by grumbling running gear. A mile or so later, Meg pulls into a parking lot, signed as a trailhead to the Salmon River. Wobble or no wobble, Lena, my old dog, needs a stroll. 

We inspect tires, pick small rocks from between treads. Nothing looks wrong. I follow Meg around a rusted gate onto a gravel road and into woods. Being with her grounds me. It always has. She started working as a geriatric care nurse soon after we met, and from day one, I understood why patients calmed and settled in her care. 

Where the road ends, at a collapsed bridge, we follow Lena’s lead along a fisherman’s trail through red osier and multiflora rose, down to the riverbed. Meg pokes at fish bones arranged on rocks, snaps pictures of a salmon’s toothy skull. She’s vegan and runs a rural animal rescue in her spare time; watching a man fight this large chinook would put her heart upon a hook. But she appreciates the elegance of this bony window into a life lived in deep current, the predator skinned into prey. 

I watch Meg prod at stones and bones, try not to think of the fact that fishermen far outnumber fisher-women in remote areas like this. Our quest for blue-green solitude has taken us where settlers used to cut winter doors into the second floor of their cabins, so as not to be trapped by Lake Ontario’s snows. Those early farms failed nearly a century ago—we’re on plowed land reclaimed by yellow poplar, maple, fir. We stand and listen where water rushes past now-orphaned bridge supports, skirt poison ivy on the way back to the parking lot. 

The noise returns as we accelerate on the highway.

“Sometimes it’s a CV joint,” Meg says, “or a bad ball bearing. They get louder over time, but you can drive quite a way on those.” 

I think of the three hundred miles that separate us from my Pennsylvania town. It’s Saturday; any car repair shop is bound to be closed. Then again, the best day for two women to be stranded along a rural road with spotty cellphone coverage is never. Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones” keeps playing in my head: 

. . .  Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind 
stranger there is one who would break you 
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world.

Like my own worst-best realtor bent on selling myself the world, I try to breathe, lay a hand on my anxious inner child’s shoulder, and point her to the other half, the fact that it’s a sunny day in June and that America is beautiful. 

I try to convince myself that Meg is right about bad ball bearings. But the sound was different when I had them replaced two or three years ago. The front ones went first, then the rear. Either way, it started on turns, not on the straight. And it increased slowly, over many miles. This rumble is growing louder. Really. Definitely. Better pull over. Better call AAA. 

An hour later, the tow truck driver scoots under the car on his back. Nothing looks wrong. When we discover that my phone’s data stream is too unstable to download any app, he lets me patch into his cellphone to install Uber, explains how to arrange a ride. He would have driven us back to our cabin, but he’s just back from Afghanistan, can’t risk losing his job. When he sees my horror at the idea of leaving Lena to panic alone in my Prius as he maneuvers it onto his truck, he clucks his tongue at her through the open window, sticks in his hand to pat her head, then agrees to have all her sixty pounds squeeze between our legs inside the truck’s cab for the hour-long haul to the next approved repair shop. We pass a dozen Trump signs. The driver tells us about his own black lab waiting at home, honks as we pass a roadside diner. “My sister works there,” he beams. If Maggie Smith is right about 50 percent of the world, we’re riding with the other half.

At the repair shop, all three of us look for a key-drop. The tow truck driver finally fishes a piece of notebook paper from his glove compartment, tells me to write my name and phone number on it, wrap it around the key, and push it into what he suspects to be the repair shop’s unlabeled letter box. It feels like writing to Santa.

We next luck out on a dog-friendly Uber driver, who spreads a blanket on her back seat for Lena, then drives us by a different dozen Trump signs, an hour back to our cabin. She works as a teacher’s support during the week. On the weekends, she joins her husband in running rides for Uber or for Lyft. He makes more money driving than he did in machining over the previous twenty years. She’s sticking with her job at school during the week so they can both have insurance. I wonder whom they voted for, a nasty mental habit I picked up during the election twenty months ago. If you knew I am an immigrant, would you vote me off the island? I don’t ask. I want her warm smile to mean she doesn’t care where I was born, or whether I am gay or straight. Out loud I wonder when she and her husband see each other. She says they stay in touch by phone.

Over a sweltering Sunday of waiting, car-less, at a cabin too far out to walk to any store, restaurant, or phone, we discover that we’re out of range for Uber, Lyft, or rental cars. There is no bus line to take us back to the repair shop. The last local taxi driver’s answering machine informs me that he retired two years ago. There’s barely any cellphone coverage. 

The cabin’s shaky wireless finally connects to the car repair shop’s e-mail link: Yes, there is a real person at the other end. Yes, they will e-mail us on Monday, when our car is fixed. I don’t ask whether they have a pick-up service that extends for hour-long drives.

Lena finally solves our transportation problem by acquainting us with our cabin neighbors’ skittish border collie and bouncy poodle mix. Their owners, two women who have driven across three states in pursuit of their first pregnancy, are warm-hearted and generous. They are relaxing in the woods between doctors’ appointments in Rochester. One of them, queasy with injected hormones, offers to hang out at the cabin with their dogs while her wife drives us all the way back to the repair shop, hauling along Lena and all our bags—a three-hour commitment. She nearly refuses the gas money I press into her hand. The sun is bright. My inner realtor gloats: “See, I told you so.”

The repair shop owner is all smiles. He tilts his head, then squints as he slides paperwork toward me for a signature. 

“Have you had work on your wheels done recently?” 

I shake my head. 

“Better talk to your repair shop at home about this,” he insists. 

He says the left front wheel was about to come off. His mechanics re-tightened the lug nuts on three wheels; they all were loose. He says we were lucky we pulled over when we did, lucky it didn’t happen on the interstate. His mechanic has driven fast, slow, and around curves. No more noise; the car is solid now. I do feel lucky as I push two twenties across his desk. 

“Could the nuts have worked themselves loose over time?” 

“Nah,” he says. “Those things don’t come loose on their own. Someone forgot to tighten them right when they last rotated your wheels.” 

I shake my head in disbelief. My car dealer’s shop has been in business for two or three generations. I bought the car from them, have had it serviced there for thirteen years, never had an issue. 

On the drive home, Meg and I consider other possibilities. We parked next to the cabin, well off the highway, far away from the closest town or house. We would have noticed anyone pulling up the long, curved gravel drive at night—motors cutting into silence, headlights slicing dark. Dogs would have barked. 

Why would anyone want to un-wrench the lug nuts on a Prius in the woods? No one knows us here. Why should they wish us ill? No one watching us would have known that Lena is hard of hearing. Even if they did, they would have had to consider the dogs next door. 

The lug nuts must have been loose before we arrived. Maybe it happened somewhere along the three hundred miles we drove to get here. But where? By the busy rest stop on the interstate? In a deserted parking lot at the Montezuma bird sanctuary, miles and miles from the nearest farm? All equally unlikely. Could the nuts have already been loose before we left my little town? Meg believes they could have been. Each time we slow for a construction site, she is reminded, eerily, of the time when someone partially unscrewed the lug nuts on her VW camper in Germany, thirty years ago. She drove that bus all the way through the hairpin turns of France’s Massif Central before a wheel came off on the return trip along the Autobahn, passing her as she slowed for a construction crew. She swerved between cones, stopped seconds ahead of a serious crash. At the time she suspected a psychotic neighbor of loosening her wheel before her trip to France.

Back home, I call my repair shop. Their records show they never touched my tires during my most recent service, last rotated them many months and thousands of miles ago. I shake my head, decide to put the question out of my mind.

Six months later, I stare through December darkness and fog at the high waters of French Creek, push against a familiar pit in my stomach. My feet vibrate on the floor of my girlfriend Skye’s Subaru. She’s driving us to the one restaurant in our town that feels warm and quiet enough for real conversation on a Friday night. My ears strain for the noise beneath my feet. I drag my attention back to her voice. She’s stressed, is barely hanging on between a more-than-full-time college teaching job and trying to be a good mom to her three-year-old. It’s been a hard semester for both of us, a hard year for anyone supporting students who feel threatened in rural Pennsylvania. 

It’s been hard since the morning I opened the computer to the New York Times vote barometer and started to panic. For the next hour, I stared out my front window, wrestled brick-lined streets, lawns, and maple trees for evidence that the people of this country, state, and town were still the same as yesterday. The vote barometer and Maggie Smith might be right about the half-terribleness of the world, but my friends, somewhere out there, surely were still my friends? And surely the folks around the block whose yard had sprouted Trump signs were still the same benign neighbors who, for the past twenty years, had smiled at me on dog walks and on my way to work?

Twenty-five months post-election, Trump signs still dot lawns and roadside ditches like flags planted across a game of Minesweeper. Anxiety and dread run under daily conversations, tugging at attention like noisy running gear. Comments in the local paper’s anonymous “Sound Off” column have grown vicious toward college-educated people, non-Christians, immigrants, people of color, queers. A week ago, a man gunned down eleven men and women in a Pittsburgh synagogue, an hour and a half away, close to many of our students’ homes. On campus, swastikas have appeared on bathroom stalls, racial slurs on the doors of black students’ dormitory rooms. It feels like sitting in a heating lobster pot. My biologist self has always known that we are getting boiled. The heat is rising much faster for some of us. 

This evening is supposed to be our date night, a rare treat. We both need the break—a moment to breathe and talk while someone else cooks us a meal. I don’t want my lug-nut nerves to taint this time. I want to ignore vibrations in my toes. 

Maybe the grinding rumble is normal for Skye’s station wagon? 

I’ve ridden with her enough to know that can’t be true. 

Uneven pavement, then. 

“Do you hear that noise?” I blurt. 

“Yes,” she says, her voice tight. “I’m trying not to worry about it right now. I’ll take the car in as soon as I can. Definitely before my Christmas road trip, though I don’t know how to make that work.” 

Her pressed tone warns me to lay off. The pit in my stomach screams to make her pull over instantly. I try to focus on what she tells me, try to forget the noise. I tell myself it isn’t really getting louder. Bad wheel bearings, perhaps—there must be two dozen reasons for a car to vibrate and rumble in this way.

Two weeks later, I scan Skye’s face on my cellphone’s screen. I’m with family in Germany for Christmas, across the ocean, three thousand miles away from her. It’s past midnight for me, and I feel grateful for this long-distance window into her darkening room, even if the image and audio connection freeze from time to time. Her face is framed by the soft upholstery of her son’s story-reading chair; the table lamp’s light paints gold across her skin. Shadows under her eyes, yes? She’s scrambling to make it through meetings, grading, exams, departure preparations for her own Christmas trip, gift wrapping for her little boy. She still hasn’t had a good night’s sleep.

“And did I tell you about the car?” she says. 

I shake my head, slowly, hoping her screen won’t freeze the motion. 

“It got so loud that I didn’t think it would make it all the way to the dealer’s shop.” Her Subaru dealer is forty-five minutes north of town. “But the people at the tire store just down the road have been really nice.”

“Bad tire?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “Loose nuts on the back left wheel. They said it was about to come off. They asked me if I had it to the repair shop recently, but the folks there only did things with the clutch last time. I called them to check.”

The pit in my stomach bores down, rips open wide: “That’s what happened to Meg and me, back in June. Three loose wheels and no work done recently.”

“No way,” Skye says. 

We stare across the freeze-and-go of a shaky connection. Our houses stand within a three-minute walk from each other, just around the block.

“That’s spooky,” she finally says.

When I still can’t sleep, two hours later, I google news sites for “lug nuts,” then mark reports on a computer map. Over the past several months someone has loosened wheels on police vehicles in Kentucky and on seemingly random private cars in Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, and Eastern Pennsylvania. Not exactly a cluster, or a pattern. None of it makes sense. 

When I tell my German friends about Skye’s loose wheel, Meg’s wife immediately asks if we’ve got a lesbian-hater in our neighborhood. I mentally scan houses, faces, shake my head. I try to air-brush out the Trump signs. 

Skye has asked around on Facebook whether anyone else has had a problem. One neighbor also thought her car might have been tampered with a while ago. But there are no other loosened wheels. Another neighbor advised Skye to park her car in the garage. From three thousand miles away, my mind’s eye scans the streets, peruses driveways: Maybe that’s it. My garage has a dilapidated floor. Hers is full-up with her son’s balance bike, stroller, scooter, little red wagon, kiddie pool, and plastic slide. 

Maybe we are the only ones who regularly park outside. Maybe I don’t have to think of Adrienne Rich writing about sirens and sleeplessness: 

Two women sleeping
together have more than their sleep to defend. 

Maybe it’s not the Trump signs, not someone resenting two women swinging a three-year-old boy, “one-two-three-jump,” between their outstretched arms. Maybe it’s not someone tracking who walks into whose house, sits in PJs on whose porch, parks in whose driveway and for how long. Maybe it isn’t Focus on the Family blasting from the radios. Maybe it’s just random mischief, a kid with too much muscle and a socket wrench, and two cars sitting out on concrete in the early northern dark. 

I take my inner child by the shoulders, turn her away from driveways, tell her it’s too dark to play outside. I won’t tell her what happened next, after the rear wheel rolled past Meg’s VW bus on the Autobahn. I won’t tell her that, a few weeks later, early on a black-ice New Year’s Day, Meg’s brakes were cut.

Catharina Coenen is a first-generation German immigrant to the northwestern 'chimney' of Pennsylvania, where she teaches biology at Allegheny College. Her essays have recently appeared or been accepted in The American Scholar, The Southampton Review Online, Superstition Review, Christian Science Monitor, Chattahoochee Review, and elsewhere. Her poetry is featured or forthcoming in Split Rock Review, Kanstellation Magazine, Porcupine, the Spectral Lines anthology by Alternating Current Press, and on The Coil.