Sunday afternoon. I am rolling along on the Northern State Parkway, 25 miles out of New York city, heading east. Another 85 miles, first sight of Orient Harbor, the causeway, Candyman, right turn on Village Lane, now down to 20 miles per hour … Finally, my house.
Illusion. Still on the Northern State, 85 miles to go. The weather is good. Freedom. The 14-year-old car with low mileage is breathing quietly, docile, a cool breeze into its windshield. Nina the dog is in my lap and, unlike the car, breathing heavily, anxious, drooling on my left leg. Ever since I adopted Nina some 10 years ago (alma mater: Kent Animal Shelter in Calverton) Nina has been a reluctant passenger. Always a struggle to get her in the car. Once on board, panting, drooling, not a moment of sleep. When my wife, Nancy, was with us, along with her mini dachshund, Hilda, in a carrier on the back seat, Nina next to Hilda, never a problem. But on this Sunday it’s just the two of us, one man, one dog.
Suddenly a roughness on the road. Harsh sound of tires scraping the pavement. Must be the surface. Some unfinished work, not smooth as it should be. A matter of a couple of hundred feet. We’ll get to the smooth surface soon. No, the sound increases, metal to asphalt. The whole car shudders. I pull up to the side at exit 23. Get out of car. Oh, no, the left rear tire is shot. A flat, it’s a flat. I haven’t had one in years.
Cars are swishing by with selfish indifference while I stand in this state of confusion, disbelief, worry that takes over when calamity strikes. Why me? But you grow up quickly. OK, flat tire, spare, jack. Action. I open the trunk of my immobilized wagon glued to the ground like a wounded animal. The spare, yes the spare, under the carpeted cover that blends so well with the rest of the interior, a soft beige that conveys the comfort of home. Under the cover, the spare tire that painfully reminds me that I’m not home, no couch, no TV, no potato chips, no lazy drink. No procrastination — I’ll take care of the flat tomorrow. How about a little nap! Ah, yes, just what I need. Where? In the dirt? But this is no time for self-indulgence. Flat tire. Immediate attention required.
Tires are heavy. The spare is in a hollow space, not so easy to pull out. Make sure all windows are closed, so the dog can’t escape. Traffic speeding by. Terrible sense of helplessness, as if the mind has deserted me. I’m on my own. I stay calm, pull the spare out of its hiding place. The jack, a not-so-obvious object of creative engineering.
Why does a little white Lexus SUV stop ahead of me on the shoulder of the parkway? A young man comes out, walks briskly toward me.
“Can I help?” he asks.
That’s all right, I say, I’ll call the AAA. I belong.
“Are you sure? They take time to come, you know.”
I wonder, does he want to make a quick buck? That’s what people do. Everybody is after a quick buck. I can manage, I tell the stranger. He looks at me, probably thinks, this guy needs help, and insists, “Let me take care of this.”
Still skeptical, I say, if you help me I’ll have to pay you for that, right? Stranger looks at me, “No, I don’t want anything. Just to get you on the way.” Well, thank you so much, really, thank you.
The stranger puts my jack under the car. It doesn’t work too well. Takes a brand-new jack out of his car. Jacks up my car. Loosens the wheel, carries it to the trunk, takes the spare, secures it, tightens all the bolts. While he’s finishing the job I walk to his car and meet his wife, a lovely, elegant woman. She smiles at me. I apologize for all the trouble. I am so impressed by your husband, I say. It’s so nice of him to help. He’s a very special person. Smiling she responds, “I know, that’s why I married him.”
In the back seat three children look at me, inquisitive and smiling, too. Handsome children, cheerful and interested. A happy family. No one seems upset at me for delaying their Sunday ride. I tell the wife, “I’d like to give your husband something for all his work.”
“No, no, he’d be offended.”
“Absolutely. He’s just glad he can help you.”
Later I would learn the parents were born in Russia but came to the United States and became U.S. citizens a long time ago. They created MA Jewelry Designs. The “stranger,” not a stranger anymore, is Matvey. Luiza is the wife. The children — Aiden, Adellina, Avian, 10, 7 and 4 — were all born here. When Matvey stopped to help me they were on their way to Walmart on Old Country Road for school supplies.
My car ready again for the trip to Orient. Matvey and his loving family finally get going. Their goodwill and kindness has taken time away from their busy day. But they don’t seem to mind. They actually seem pleased to have helped me, a total stranger, even after I had told Matvey I could call the AAA. I think most people would have said, “Oh, good, the AAA will come. You’re OK.” But not Matvey. Judging by the smiles of everyone in the car, wife and children, it’s obviously what they expect from this energetic and devoted husband and father. To volunteer, when there’s need for help.
For the next 85 miles I have this beautiful family on my mind. There are still good people in this world, like Matvey and Luiza and their three bright children. You just must be lucky enough to have them around when trouble hits you.
Pierre Gazarian is a poet and a writer of one-act plays. Email: [email protected].