Reads: 5

Come to Syracuse

 

 

I love driving at night, especially when it's raining, or even better - snowing. Then you have to steer your vehicle carefully, have to muscle it, and, at the same time, be careful to finesse it in the tricky spots. It’s a delightful balance to strike.

I have an old, stick-shift Mitsubishi Lancer, which had a bad wheel bearing. The transmission was also lousy, and sooner or later, it was going just to stop changing gears, the mechanic had said. I hoped it would be later. I loved my little Lancer, but it had many other problems and simply wasn’t worth repairing. I just needed it to last long enough to save enough money to buy a newer car. Anyway, the manual transmission added to its ability to be driven on snow.

One snowy night, I went for a drive. I had been feeling restless at home. Couldn't relax. I needed to get out of the house. Driving seemed to be the right emotional outlet; it had worked in the past. This time, I ventured outside the borders of Binghamton, where I lived at that time. I usually stayed within the limits of the town on those late car voyages, but that night, I had a strange urge to make the long trip to Syracuse. It was a strange urge that I couldn't explain to myself even. So I turned from Riverside Ave up the ramp to the highway.

The further north from the town I got, the heavier the snowfall became. Soon it was a full-blown snowstorm. I was lucky to get behind a plow truck and just kept following it. In the illuminated area in front of me, I could only see snowflakes pushed sideways by the wind. I felt as if a white vortex enveloped me. The rear left wheel bearing of my car was emitting that familiar creaking, the transmission was making the lub-dub sound, and the engine was murmuring happily. I turned up the radio, and all sound, but the music disappeared. It was comfortable and warm inside as if I was miles away from the storm. Only my eyes and the sudden movements of the unstable car reminded me that the outside could rush in if I made even a small mistake.

The plow took the exit to Cortland, and I continued on the highway. The driving conditions became much worse without having someone to clear the snow in front of me. I slowed down to thirty miles an hour. The road was very slippery, covered in slush mixed with snow, and I put all my efforts into controlling the car. The vehicle was going over bumps, swerving, and skidding, but I always managed to steer it forward, on and on. I just had to get to Syracuse.

At a section of the road that was clear of snow, I pressed on the gas. Eventually, I caught up with an eighteen-wheeler that was driving in the left lane. He wouldn't move to the right, so I did instead. The flurry of snow the truck created was blinding. I accelerated to try to gain on it faster. I was about to pass it, coming out of a long left turn, when I saw lights and cars in the distance in front of me. There was some sort of accident ahead of me. I pressed the brakes, suddenly realizing that the clean part of the road had ended. I was driving pretty fast in a mixture of slush and snow. The Lancer started skidding.

I thought that I would never be able to stop before reaching the car in front of me. The left lane seemed unobstructed, so I decided that my only chance to avoid an accident was to move there. By then, I had passed the truck. I switched between lanes and kept applying the brakes softly, trying to reduce the speed as much as I could. When I was passing the first car, I glanced at the speedometer - it showed forty miles an hour!

Vehicles had skidded onto the side of the road, left and right; police, tow trucks, and ambulances, too. Altogether maybe twenty cars were part of the chain crash. I zoomed through the whole cluster of a mess without ramming into anyone, and I was able to slow down just in time to pass the last cars that were part of the accident.

About ten miles before reaching Syracuse, my transmission started giving way. The noise coming from it increased so much that I could hear it over the music from the radio. I imagined myself stranded on the highway at eleven o'clock at night. The thought of it made me check my pockets - I had forgotten to take my phone with me. Even if the transmission gave out ultimately, I could always stay in the car with the engine running until someone stopped and allowed me to call a tow truck from their phone.

Eventually, the transmission quieted down a bit, and I entered into Syracuse at last. I drove around the streets of the city, in a way celebrating my "victory."

The roads were icy and snow-covered, and I had to change the gears up and down frequently. In the end, my doubts about my car proved to be correct, as the transmission locked just after I cleared through an intersection. The engine was still purring cheerfully, but the wheels didn't move. The gears wouldn't switch, either. I cursed and unwillingly got out of the car, pushing it to the edge of the road. At least the Lancer was light, and it was possible to shoulder it to a spot where it could stay until the morning. I locked the doors carefully—as if someone could or would steal it—and looked around.

My car had failed me next to a building, which, after further inspection, turned out to be a small hospital or clinic, something like that. Maybe I would have ended up here if something had gone wrong out there on the highway. The street was empty of traffic. The snow kept falling around me, piling up higher. I decided to go to the hospital. There I could ask to use their phone to call a cab and check into a hotel until the morning.

I entered the building. At that point, I was feeling exhausted. Maintaining a constant state of alertness during the two-and-a-half-hour-drive had exhausted me. I looked at the receptionist at the front desk. She was in her sixties, with long hair in total disarray and a big mole on her cheek. She looked back at me nastily, which I tried to ignore; she was probably also tired and sick and maybe didn't like her job very much. It could be any of those reasons or all of them. It could just be my being tired and not correctly saying the right things, and maybe not perceiving what she was saying in the right way. Whatever it was, we got on the wrong foot from the very beginning.

"Yes, may I help you?" she asked me curtly after the nasty look; she then continued looking at the computer in front of her.

"Excuse me, may I use your phone? My car is outside..."

"Of course, you can use the phone."

"Oh, thank you."

"I was just sarcastic. This phone is for office use only. You can't use it," the receptionist briskly responded. Surprised by her unexpected rudeness, I became rude myself.

"Miss…Mrs, I am drained, and I just need to use the phone. Or you can call me a cab if you prefer."

"Excuse me, sir. Are you working here, or are you in need of a doctor's attention?"

"No, my car..." I tried to finish the sentence, but she interrupted.

"Okay. Your car needs attention. I’m afraid that I can’t help you."

Tired and surprised by her unfriendly demeanor and the quick and efficient way she had dismissed me, I stepped back. I looked around for a witness to the receptionist's lousy behavior and spotted a janitor who was sweeping the floor. He looked at me but didn't say anything. I turned around and exited the building, shuffling back into the storm. The janitor followed me outside.

"I heard that you were asking for a phone," he said. He was a tall white man with a mustache. He didn't look like a janitor. But then, how was a janitor supposed to look?

"You heard her, right? That's unforgivable. I will call her manager tomorrow," I complained.

"You can do that if you want, sir. We only use the phone for hospital business. There is a phone for the patients' use, though – one inside every ward. I can show you, and you can call."

I was surprised for a second time by the personnel of the hospital. It was as if the janitor and the receptionist were playing a good cop-bad cop game. I nodded in agreement, and he led me through a side door. We went up a flight of stairs, then another and another until he opened a door and we entered one of the wards.

"You aren’t supposed to be here," he said as if he wanted me to hurry up. He was not alarmed or didn’t seem to be in a hurry himself, though; he didn’t seem worried that he would get in trouble. "Here is the phone."

There was an old coin-operated phone on the wall. Next to it - a directory. I called a cab company while the janitor was waiting for me patiently. After I had hung up the phone and we were about to leave, I heard a voice.

"Johnny, Johnny! My son, come here."

The door of one of the patient’s rooms close to the phone was open. The voice had come from there. I looked questioningly at the janitor. He only shrugged his shoulders. Then the same voice of an older woman cried out from the room. "I heard you, Johnny. Come to your mother. Come here, my baby."

Slowly, as if someone were pushing me into the room against my will, I walked in. The janitor stayed at the door. Inside the room were two beds. One was empty, and on the second, next to the window, was lying an older woman. She was trying to sit up in the bed but couldn't. There was an IV system connected to her arm and an oxygen tube under her nostrils. When the woman saw me coming in, she quit trying to sit up and waved me to come closer.

"Oh, Johnny! I haven't seen you for so long. Why don't you ever come to see your mother?"

Once I saw her, the same urge that had made me get out and drive in the night made me approach and sit on the chair next to her bed. She appeared small; her hair was short and dull gray. Her face was wrinkly, and her whole appearance looked like someone very worn and tired and dying. Only the eyes appeared to have any life left in them. They were clear and glistening with excitement and joy. I felt joy, too, as if I was seeing an old friend. Was the goal of my meandering to get to this hospital and talk to this woman? I had never seen her before. She seemed to be delirious and was mistaking me for someone else.

I knew she was waiting for a response from "Johnny," so I spoke hesitantly. "I was busy with work...Mom."

She sighed, and her head rested back on the pillow, gulping for air. It seemed that the exertion had tired her. I looked at the janitor behind me. He smiled and nodded as if he meant to say, "Go on."

"I was, but I will be coming more often from now on. You know, work and other things. But I am well. How are you feeling?" I continued unsurely.

"How am I feeling - like I’m dying. But I am happy that you are here. How is Frank? He never comes to see me either."

I looked at the door again. The janitor made a motion with his hand urging me to continue. I turned back to the woman.

"Frank is okay. You know him. He is always too busy with - with his work and all those other things..." I trailed off, as I wasn’t sure how much more fake backstory I could come up with.

"Since when do you call your father Frank?" she scolded me.

"Oh, I was kidding. It's just that Dad is busy. But he will come very soon to visit."

"Has he been sick?" she asked, alarmed and tried to raise her head from her pillow.

"No, no! He's been in excellent health. Don’t worry, Mom."

"So, tell me. How are you doing? How is Amy?"

"Amy?"

"Yes, your girlfriend. You are still together, aren't you?"

"Yes, of course. Amy is also well. She's been asking for you, and she is planning to come to see you, too."

"Oh, that is so good to hear. I want to see that girl so much. I stay here, and I think about all of you, all the time - about the past. Do you remember how nicely we lived, how happy we were when you were a kid? How we had that old inflatable pool in the summer, and you played all day long with your friends?"

"Yes, Mom, I remember. Those were great times."

The woman continued talking about the past, and all I had to do was to say "yes" and to nod. She just needed to speak to her Johnny. While she was talking, I looked around the room. There was a table next to the wall, and there were a few pictures on top. There was a bigger picture on the wall, but I couldn't look it over carefully because the only light in the room was the weak illumination coming from the hallway.

The woman talked for quite some time. She grew more and more tired, and her speech became slurred. Eventually, she drifted away. Before she did, she had one more moment of clarity.

"When I die, Johnny, I don’t want you to be sad. Remember me when I was healthy and well. Can you promise me that?"

"Yes, Mom. I promise."

"Okay, Johnny. Say hi to everyone. I will go to sleep now." She closed her eyes, and her breath became deep and slow.

I slowly got up and left the room. Outside I asked the janitor, "What was that all about?"

"That lady has been in the nursing home for some time and is getting worse every day. She has dementia and always asks for her family, but I think that all of them are already gone. She doesn't have anyone. I am kind of glad that she doesn't understand it. She is very sick - cancer and whatnot. But she doesn't die."

"Can I come to visit her tomorrow?"

The janitor smiled at me.

"Come if you want. Look for Mrs. Broshack. Kate Broshack." We exited the building out the way we came. Outside there was a cab waiting for me. The cab driver had been waiting for quite a while and was pissed, so I made sure to give him a nice tip when he dropped me at the hotel.

The next morning, I bought a bus ticket to Binghamton for the afternoon. I also arranged to sell my car for 100 to a junkyard company. The transmission had to be changed; the car was old; it was just not worth fixing it. The guy with the tow truck met me at the hospital where the Lancer was parked and gave me the money. I then went to visit Kate Broshack.

The receptionist was a different one from last night - this time she was young and cheerful.

"Hi. I am here to visit Mrs. Broshack." I said.

"Are you related?"

"No, I am just a friend."

"Okay, I will call for someone from her unit to take you there. Just a second."

After five minutes, a man in a white coat came to see me. We shook hands.

"Are you a close friend of Mrs. Broshack?" he asked.

"You could say that."

"Sorry to tell you, sir, but she passed away peacefully last night," the nurse said. He opened his arms to indicate that it was the natural course of events.

"This is, this is unexpected..." I stuttered, shocked by the abruptness of her…departure.

"No, not really. Mrs. Broshack had an advanced stage carcinoma. She was clinging to her life very vigorously, though. I think that she had the delusion that someone from her family would come to visit her. Sometimes patients in her condition are like that - they have the motivation to hold onto life, based on their belief—no matter how irrational—that they still have to make their farewells to someone, even though their health is deteriorating. As far as I know, she doesn't have any surviving family, does she?"

"No, just some friends," I said hesitantly.

"Well, I guess you can take her things if you want. She didn't have much."

A hospital aid took me to a room where on a table were Mrs. Broshack's belongings - a mug, a few photos, and a big picture in a frame. The images were old - of her and two men - her husband and son. A girl was holding to the son in two of the photos.

I turned to the aide. "Do you know what happened to them?" I asked, nodding at the men in the picture.

"No one knows. No one ever came to visit the poor woman."

Finally, I turned my eyes to the large picture. It had been hanging in front of Kate so she could see it all the time. It was a lovely picture of the city of Syracuse, covered in snow. Under the picture was written: Come to Syracuse. I took only the picture with me and left the hospital.

Outside, it looked nothing like the previous night. The sky was a clear, bright blue. The sun was shining cheerfully, melting the deep snow cover. The driver of the tow truck was still fiddling around with my Lancer. He was having some trouble lifting it onto the back of his vehicle because the front bumper had somehow collided and stuck to the rear of the truck. It was as if the car didn't want to go. I waved to it for the last time - the way you say goodbye to a beloved friend. Then I turned and walked away, holding the picture under my arm.


Submitted: May 20, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Robert Ratman. All rights reserved.

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