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Fiction Coming of Age Sad

Vince Stafford’s eyes welled up with tears as he looked at the photos, wilted flowers, trinkets, and waterlogged sympathy cards gathered around The Bedford Cross.

The twenty-five-foot cross had been erected in 1956 on a large traffic island that separated South Bedford Road and Route 119. The Cross memorialized the dozens of lives lost or ruined there. Vince cried because he knew too many of them.

Drivers heading north were often lulled into a false sense of safety by the picturesque trees that lined South Bedford Road, especially in the fall when the leaves turned into a cascade of bright orange, red and yellow. But the legendary part of the road was the white-knuckle curve that left drivers hugging the shoulder as their tires screeched and their hubcaps flew off. Most locals could negotiate the abrupt, seemingly endless curve, but many inexperienced drivers and tourists either found themselves skidding off the road or barely dodging a head-on collision with oncoming vehicles.

If a car skidded off the road and didn’t end up wrapped around one of the picturesque trees, there was a steep drop on both the north and south sides of the road that promised a bumpy, rolling, and painful ending.

Drivers traveling southbound encountered a blind spot where the roads intersected. The locals laughingly referred to it as “Ole Alley,” a place where cars were often T-boned, and their occupants seldom walked away.

A rumor had circulated throughout the town of Bedford that the Cross had been erected on sacred land stolen from the Ramapo Indians and was cursed. It may have been a tall tale created for tourists, but from the time it was erected to when it was knocked down in 1996, there was an accident every day within a quarter mile of the Bedford Cross.

Vince knelt in front of the cross, adding his bouquet of roses for Colette Hammer to a stack of wilted flowers. He really did miss her, just like she said he would. Her memory, however painful, was a connection to his past.

He laughed to himself when he noticed Barry Crowfoot’s faded motorcycle glove.

Barry had propped up his glove so that the middle finger pointed straight up at the cross.

Barry had bought a big, thirsty, loud Triumph bike in the summer of 1972. He loved the sense of freedom he got from driving it faster every time he rode it.

Speeding northbound one sunny Sunday, Barry managed to avoid a Mustang that swerved into his lane. He turned for a second to watch the car spin sideways. In the next moment, he and his bike were skidding across the road.

The bike wound up wrapped around a tree. After two months in the hospital, Barry ended up with a distinct limp for the rest of his life. His friends nicknamed him “Chester” after the gimpy deputy on the T.V. western “Gunsmoke.”

Concerned parents and driving instructors often used Gary Travelena’s tragic fate to scare new drivers. Tall, affable, with male model looks and a quick wit, Gary was known and admired by everyone in Bedford. If he had one fault it was his reckless, anything-for-a-laugh nature, which he shared with his ingénue-girlfriend, Cheryl Branch. Gary, Cheryl, and Cheryl’s hippie best friend, Magda Balin, were cruising down South Bedford Road when they spotted Gary’s younger brother, Ricky, hitchhiking. Picking him up, Gary was anxious to show Ricky how his car could go from zero to seventy in a microsecond.

Ricky was as funny as Gary was suave and had once demonstrated it when he crashed Vince’s eighteenth birthday party. Ricky asked Vince what he wanted for a gift. Looking out the window, Vince noticed his neighbor was flying a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag in front of their house. He jokingly told Ricky he wanted it. When Ricky tapped Vince on the shoulder a few minutes later, he draped the flag around his shoulder.

The car hit the straight away and Gary bragged, “I could breeze down this road blindfolded.”

Giggling, Cheryl covered Gary’s eyes. Ricky never forgot her carefree laughter.

Cheryl pulled her hands away just before the curve in the road. Roaring along at ninety miles an hour, Gary steered the car into the center of the road in order to make the turn. The driver of the car in the opposite lane had just finished complaining to his wife that the turn was dangerous when the two cars met head-on.

Randy and a seven-year-old boy in the other car were the only survivors. The boy never forgot the bizarre specter of his parent’s flattened bodies. Randy was trapped in the back seat for forty-five minutes but managed to walk away without a scratch.

He taped a picture of his brother to the Bedford Cross.

Ten days later, Randy was hitchhiking along the same stretch of road. He later said he felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up, but that didn’t stop him from getting in his best friend Sterling Camino’s car. This time there were five people in the car, and it was the vehicle in the opposite lane that hit them head-on. Sterling and his girlfriend died instantly. One of the two girls sitting in the back seat with Ricky was paralyzed. The other girl spent a month in the hospital and required plastic surgery.

Randy walked away untouched. He never hitchhiked again.

Beau Brees bought a new 1976 Porsche 924, but wouldn’t let anyone even sit in it, including his fellow volunteer firemen. They didn’t forget the slight.

Four days out of the showroom, the Porsche stalled on the road across from the Bedford Cross. Beau tried to start it again. The car’s battery burst through the hood, shooting thirty feet up in the air. It landed on the roof of a passing Vega being driven by Beau’s cousin, Summer. Barry Crowfoot was in the passenger seat, laughing at Beau’s dilemma until the battery hit the roof with a loud bang.

The Porsche caught fire, and by the time the Bedford Fire Department made it to the scene it had melted down to a trunk and two back wheels. Barry tried to fend off the flames by urinating on the car.

Unlike the Cross’ other victims, Valentine Hasard was neither drunk, high, or speeding. He was at a friend’s bachelor party, and when they ran out of mixers, he volunteered to go to the supermarket.

He was missing for two days before a policeman discovered a set of tire tracks past the trees lining South Bedford Road. Valentine was found at the bottom of a hill, still strapped in behind the wheel.

No one could say for sure how he got there.

The police surmised that Valentine had either swerved to avoid another car or a deer.

Valentine’s fiancée, Athena Kursk, was in the Bahamas enjoying a vacation with her girlfriends when the accident occurred. When she came home, instead of planning a wedding, she had to plan a funeral.

Over the next two years, friends who encountered Athena noticed she was always drunk. Vince had run into Athena one night at a bar, and she spent two hours blubbering on his shoulder, saying life was cruel and pointless.

Her sister, Pauline, finally got Athena to go to the Bedford Cross in the hope it would help her shake her depression. Athena left behind a prom picture of herself and Valentine

The next morning Pauline couldn’t wake Athena up. The coroner listed her death as natural causes, a rarity for a robust twenty-four-year-old woman. Her friends all knew she died from a broken heart.

Vince had many brushes with the Cross’ appetite for teenage carnage.

When his father brought a new car, Vince fell heir to the family’s old Ford Fairlane station wagon. Vince’s first misadventure with his new procession was to invite a few friends to MacDonald’s for lunch. Each friend told a friend and Vince wound up shepherding a dozen kids in the station wagon, which was quickly dubbed “The Love Boat.”

Heading down South Bedford Road, Vince cruised toward Ole Alley, oblivious that a Mack truck was bearing down on them.

Vince realized he and a dozen kids were about to die when he heard a torrent of screams followed by several long blasts from the truck’s horn.

Vince stood on the gas. The Love Boat responded by drifting through Ole Alley. The massive truck seemed to pass through the car, missing the Love Boat by inches.

Vince and several of his friends were less fortunate a few months later while in the company of the often surly and Mephistophelian-looking Dave Jones, who only smiled when he was in a euphoric beer and drug-fueled haze. And Dave was smiling from ear to ear when Vince and three of his friends piled into the back of his pickup truck heading for the annual Fiddler’s Convention. The Fiddler’s Convention was an enjoyable way to spend a Sunday afternoon listening to roots music, communing with nature, and partying with open-minded hippie girls.

After six hours in the scorching July sun, Vince and his equally toasted friends met up for the ride home. The seemingly indestructible John LeRoc, rapier-tongued Jonathan Hasty, and placid Jay Stihl reclaimed their places in the bed of the truck with Vince, while John’s nefarious older brother, Ralph, rode shotgun in the cab with a now wobbly Dave.

Ralph kept the chatter up, making sure Dave stayed awake. Unfortunately, Dave’s reflexes were already fast asleep. Passing the Cross, Dave overcompensated in his attempt to negotiate South Bedford Road’s wide turn. But instead of skirting toward the center of the road, the truck spun out. By the time Dave straightened out the wheel, the truck was bounding down the same steep hill that had claimed Valentine Hasard’s life.

Jonathan and John were ejected from the back, quickly finding themselves sitting in soft, tall grass. Vince watched as Jay flew over him, banging off the truck’s back window.

Branches and weeds battered Vince and Jay like clubs. The truck finally came to a halt after nosediving into a pile of dirt.

Jay’s arm swelled up, looking like it belonged on Popeye. Maintaining his mellow attitude, Jay insisted that despite his new deformity, he felt fine.

Dave stumbled out of the truck, laughing heartily to himself, proclaiming, “The Cross chewed on me, but it spit me out!” His mad laughter was matched by the equally unharmed John and Jonathan, who were still sitting on their sore haunches in the tall grass, wondering how they’d gotten there.

Ralph stepped out of the cab, quietly muttering, “This isn’t good” to himself. His right arm, which had been dangling out of the window, was sliced open from his elbow to his wrist. The wound took 110 stitches to close. Ralph, who plied his trade as a carpenter, missed a month of work. His assistant would have picked up the slack, but his assistant happened to be Jay, whose arm was broken in three places.

When he got a cast off four weeks later, Jay added it to the ever-growing pile of Bedford Cross artifacts.

Not long after graduating college, Vince hooked up with a blonde with a Marilyn Monroe fixation. To Vince, Colette Hammer looked more like Monroe’s rival Mamie Van Doren, but with a body built for dizzying sex and Colette’s anything-goes attitude, Vince wasn’t going to quibble.

The pair mated like rabid rats in a paper bag, but also fought the same way. Despite her unbridled sexuality, Colette could also be historically immature. Privately, Colette could be caring, loving, and even reserved. Publicly, Colette was brash, combative, flirtatious, and determined to be the center of attention.

A typical night out started with Colette being affectionate, leaving ruby red lip imprints all over Vince’s face. The arguments began a few drinks later, ending with Colette throwing her drink in Vince’s face and stomping off to the ladies room. When she came back it was as if nothing happened - until it happened again.

“You know I love you, don’t you?” she’d say. “You’re my only friend, the only person I trust. You like that I depend on you. You’ll be sorry if you ever lose me.”

Watching Colette storm off one Saturday night, Jolie Sauveur, a waitress in the bar who’d long admired Vince for his patience and humor, offered him a towel.

“You can do much better than her.”

Wiping away the vodka trickling down his face, Vince responded, “Really? What are you doing later?”

“Stop acting like a caveman. I’m not some easy mattress-back like Colette. You’ve got to wine and dine me first.”

“Deal.”

“And I’m not your back up babe. You’ve got to get rid of Bimbostein.”

“Who?”

“That’s what everybody calls her. The tight clothes and the heavy makeup scream that she wants guys to look at her and chase after her. She’s not looking for love, Vince. I doubt she even knows what love is. So, you can keep playing high school games or have a real relationship. It’s up to you. In the meantime. strap yourself in. Here she comes.”

Colette pecked Vince on the cheek, leaving an imprint of her ruby-red lips.

“Everything all right now?” he asked.

“Of course, baby. How about some more drinks?”

As Vince signaled to Jolie, a  swarthy dude with a porn star mustache passed by their table, winking at Colette.

“Creep,” Colette huffed.

“He’s just trying to get your attention.”

“That’s what bothers me about you, Vince. You never stick up for me. That guy was making a pass at me. Aren’t you going to do anything about it?”

“I can’t blame him. You’re beautiful.”

Rolling her eyes, Jolie put their drinks down in front of them.

Colette gulped half of her drink down. “How do you expect us to be married in three months if you’re not willing to protect me or my honor?”

The blood drained from Vince’s shocked expression. “Three months?”

“Have you forgotten what I said when we first met? I said we’d be married within six months. We’ve got three months left.”

“That doesn’t mean it has to happen. That’s crazy.”

Colette’s nostrils flared, her languid blue eyes turning stone cold.

“Don’t call me that! You know I hate it when people call me that! You’re such an insensitive pig!”

Grabbing Vince’s drink, Colette threw it in his face.

“Don’t call me, don’t ever try to speak to me again! I never want to see you again! We’re through!”

Colette’s high heels clicked as she sped out of the bar. Turning to look at the clock, Vince smirked when he checked the time.

“Friday night, eleven-thirty,” Jolie said to him.

“So, you’ve noticed too.”

“Everybody has. She picks a fight with you every Friday at the same exact time and then runs out.”

“No worries,” Vince replied. “She calls every Sunday and begs me to take her back.”

“You ever wonder where she goes after your fight or how she gets home?”

“I guess she takes a Taxi.”

Jolie snickered. “She gets a ride from her other boyfriend who picks her up here every Friday night at eleven-thirty.”

“Who is it?”

“Bob Mangini,” Jolie replied. So, one of your best friends is playing backdoor man with Bimbostein.”

“Gives me the perfect excuse to call off the wedding.”

“You’re actually entertaining the idea of marrying that slut?”

“She’s under the delusion that we’re going to get married in three months,” Vince replied.

“That should be about the time the baby begins to really show.”

Vince recoiled, wiping the liquor from his face with a cocktail napkin.

“Based on what you told me, there’s no guarantee it would be mine. So, knowing all of this, do you still want me to wine and dine you?”

Jolie cocks her head, tapping a long fingernail against her cheek. “Will you promise to be honest with me? Do you think you can be honest with yourself?”

“I suppose that would be a welcome change. I’ve been fooling myself for too long. Colette is pretty, but that’s about all.”

Jolie glances at the doorway.

“Oh, oh.”

“What?”

“It’s Bob Mangini.”

“Where’s Colette?”

“She’s not with him.”

“Maybe she meets somebody else every Friday at midnight,” Vince quipped.

Bob sauntered to the bar, muttering to himself.

“What’s the matter, Mangini?” Vince asked. “Did Bimbostein find another guy so she could cheat on you too?”

“She’s crazy. We got into a fight, and she stole my car.”

“So, you’re going to have a drink instead of calling the cops?” Jolie said.

“She’ll bring it back. Besides, she won’t get too far. It’s running on fumes.”

“I’m afraid I have some bad news for you, Bob,” Vince said.

“Worse than that screwball drivin’ off at ninety?”

“Yeah. She doesn’t know how to drive.”

Vince and Bob caught up to Colette near the Bedford Cross.

Bob’s car was upside down in the middle of the road. Glass and shards of metal littered the street.

Bob got out of the car first. Looking inside his car, he howled in agony.

Colette was sitting in the driver’s seat, her head tilted to one side, her face a mask of blood.

It was then that Vince realized he was going to miss her.

When Barry “Chester” Crowfoot ran for a seat on the Town Council, he fervently promised to reroute South Bedford Road, remove the traffic island, and tear down the Bedford Cross.

He was elected in a landslide.

At the groundbreaking ceremony, Barry operated the bulldozer that tore up the island. Ricky Travelina wielded the first axe that toppled the cross.

Bob Mangini, Jay Stihl, Ralph LeRoc, and other broken kids from the seventies who were now nearing their seventies wiped the tears from their eyes and applauded.

November 10, 2022 17:54

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