“Take your time,” he said. But he didn’t hand it back. Instead he shook it. “There’s the problem. It’s broken. There isn’t enough pressure to force the inner tube to inflate.”
I glared at the machine for deceiving me with its hiccupping hum. “Do you know anyplace else close we could go?”
“I’m going to try the Chevron over on Atlanta Highway.”
“Thanks. I guess I will, too.” I stuffed my gauge in my pocket and checked the straps on the car’s bike rack, then followed him out of the parking lot.
It was the first cool day in September, and the sun was dipping lower in the sky. Two stoplights and a U-turn later, I decided I could have pedaled to the next gas station faster than I had driven the car. I watched the man kneel beside his vehicle then get up again with asphalt stains on his khakis.
“Good luck!” He waved as he pulled out.
Right away, I could tell the difference. This machine positively juddered with pressurized energy. Its hose was stiff and hard to manage, and when I applied it to my bike’s valve stem, it emitted a satisfying whish before I completed the connection with a tiny thup.
The tire swelled, but then it twanged and popped over the rim on one side. “Seriously?” The sky was turning orange and pink now. I was running out of daylight. I set down the air hose and got ready to drain the air out.
“ ‘Scuse me.” A woman picked up the hose. Without looking at me, she said, “Do you mind if I take a turn while you fix that?”
“No. Um. Not a problem.”
I fiddled with the valve and listened to the air blast. When a sufficient amount had drained out, I reset the rim and waited. The pinks and oranges were fading to grays by the time the woman finished. Couldn’t she tell I was in a hurry? Wasn’t it obvious that I had only dashed out to fill my tires so I could take a quick ride around the block? Could she not see my window of opportunity for that ride closing as the rays disappeared from the sky?
Finally, she drove away. “Thanks,” she said as she pulled out. It sounded like an afterthought.
I jammed the air back in place, but the valve retreated into the rim. “Really?” I looked around to make sure the parking lot was empty before I set the hose down again. When I yanked the valve back out, something else tupped loose, like maybe the inner tube had been kinked, possibly even folded up over the rim’s edge.
By the time both tires were filled, the colors had left the sky. Twilight had settled, and full dark would follow within minutes. Once I repeated the U-turn and stoplight routine, then drove through the neighborhood to my house, it would be too dark for my ride. And the neighborhood was right there, just exactly behind me, across two deserted parking lots. “Damn it, I could bike faster.”
I hadn’t seen or heard the other car arrive, but now a woman stood beside her car holding her own tire gauge. “Here.” I handed her the hose. “I’m through.”
I threw the car into reverse, but instead of pulling out into traffic, I drove around behind the gas station and parked next to its car wash. I unhooked my bike from the rack and wrestled it to the ground. I could bike it faster, and Scott could bring me back to pick up the car when I got home. With a final glance to the sky, I set out walking across the grass between two parking lots. Then I threw one leg over the seat, grabbed onto the handlebars, and started to pedal.
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.