by M.A. DeNeve
The accident- and I’m still not sure it was an accident - happened about mid morning.
Chubby Checker was on the ancient jukebox. Classic cars filled the street in front to Amelia's Books and Records. Occasionally I’d look up from the counter where I served fresh coffee and doughnuts and I’d see a Corvette, an Edsel or a Bel Air. As busy as we were, the cars made me want to be cruising.
When the Beach Boys sang Little Deuce Coup, I new what one looked like. Jimmy one of our regular customers usually drove a Jeep into the parking lot, but he'd pass around pictures of his Coup. On this day he had the car out on Woodward. He'd toot as he drove past. Of course, I didn't know all of the thousand plus classic car buffs who’d come to the Cruise, but I thought my customers, the ones I served everyday, had the best cars.
This was the Woodward Dream Cruise, the largest car show in the world. The crowd was expected to exceed 1.2 million. I thought I’d served at least that many cups of coffee and it was still mid morning. In some ways the cars were coming home. They'd rolled off the assembly line right here in Michigan.
The screech of tires on pavement is not unusual for Dream Cruise Day, but when I heard it, I somehow knew something bad had happened. At first I thought it was a car accident, two pieces of metal grinding into each other. Our customers rushed outside to see what happened. Amelia, the store owner, and I collapsed onto the bar stools at the counter. We’d been going non stop since 8 a.m. when we’d opened. We welcomed a brief break, but prayed no one was seriously hurt.
Reluctantly after a few minutes we got up. I made a fresh pot of coffee. Amelia drifted toward the window. Whatever had happened, it stopped traffic completely. Just what we needed on Dream Cruise Day when the street was overcrowded, and the cars weren’t moving much anyway.
Jeannie who works records came back in and said the it was Rose. “She got hit by a car.”
“Is she all right?” Amelia asked.
“It don’t look good.”
Soon sirens screamed; An ambulance made its way through the overcrowded street. I saw a few cops outside keeping the crowd away from the street. People started coming back inside to talk about what had happened.
Earl from the Corvette Club said. “The lady ain’t no more.”
“She’s dead?” I asked. “Are you sure?”
“Course, I’m sure. You think I’d come in here and say a thing like that if I wasn’t sure?”
The local patrons had not liked Rose when she was alive; many of them had been downright mean to her.
I hadn’t known Rose well, but I’d always been nice to her when she came in. I was nice to all the customers, but I had felt sorry for Rose, who wore stained, faded sweat shirts, white socks and polyester pants that stopped short at the ankles. I’d sneak her extra coffee cake and pay for it from my tips. I could always get money from my parents, but I didn't think Rose had much. Amelia felt sorry for her too and invited her to meetings even though the others at the Fan Club and the Reunion Committee didn’t want Rose there.
“She graduated with you?”I asked when I overheard Amelia invite Rose to the class reunion.
“Fifty years ago, but who’s counting.”
The Fan Club was Amelia and my grandmother and some of their friends. When they’d been young, they all liked different singers and some of them had changed favorites over the years. Bobby Rydell. Fabian. Dion. Frankie Avalon. They still had their scrapbooks and their records. They met once a month to discus what was happening with their favorites.
The reunion committee again was Amelia, my grandmother and the others planning their fifty year high school reunion. They graduated in 1966.
The Fan Club, the Reunion Committee and the car clubs all met at Amelias. There were political groups too. This was 2016, an election year. We got Bernie groups, Trump groups and Hilary groups and even Green Party members and Libertarians meeting at Amelia. Suffice it to say, I made lots of coffee that summer. Waiting on them was good practice for the Dream Cruise.
More customers started coming back in. “It was some old lady,” one of the them said. “She looked like a bag lady.”
“Tramp in other words.”
Those who knew Rose didn’t have any better things to say. “She was an odd one.”
“Old as the hills,” Earl said.
“She graduated with us,” Amelia reminded him. “If she was old as the hills, what does that say about us?”
“She got held back a few years didn’t she. She was older.”
“Ain’ no crime in being old,” Amelia said. “She was a nice lady.”
Someone punched some numbers in the Juke Box. After Brenda Lee stopped rocking around the Christmas Tree - we were in August for god sake - Nat King Cole sang “Faded Tainted Rose.”
I started crying. Rose hadn’t had the best life, but she didn’t deserve to die and she didn’t deserve their meanness.
How could anyone get hit during the Dream Cruise when cars mostly drove so slow?. Sometimes they speeded up for short jerky spurts. But they wouldn’t do that if someone was standing there.
I remembered just before the accident. It was noisy in Amelia’s store, but I’ve got good hearing. The whine of a motor and the scream. Someone had accelerated and…
Amelia put her arms around me. “Time for a break,” she told me.
I shook my head. “We’re too busy.”
I was 16 years old and this was my first job. I’d grown up in the last few months working for Amelia. Old timers - 60 and 70 year old men and women - came in and I was calling them by their first names. That felt odd. Amelia reminded me that the presidential candidates were Bernie, Hillary and Donald. “First names come easier nowadays,” she had told me.
Amelia’s was a used book and record shop. The old timers many of whom had worked at the auto plants bought these same records when they were younger and the songs were popular. Now they dropped quarters into Amelia’s jukebox and played the old songs that they knew when they were growing up. I’d bet few of my high school chums knew who Dion was.
On Monday, the Dream Cruise was over and Woodward Avenue had gone back to normal. The Juke box mostly belonged to Frankie Avalon that day. Bobby Vee and Paul Anka sang a few songs.
There wasn’t much new to say about the cars or the Dream Cruise. Instead the regulars talked about Rose who they said wore too much make-up and never learned to drive a car.
“She never could look good no matter what she wore.”
“Too fat and too weird.”
“She sure was an ugly woman.”
“She used to take the bus down to GM. She worked on the line just like a fella.”
“Built like a fella too.”
“Good worker, but no one liked her down there. She got laid off when the lay-offs came.”
“She had seniority. The union shoulda done something about that.”
“Remember our senior prom,” Amelia said. “She didn’t have a date, so she signed up to serve punch. And she wore this pretty formal dress. I felt so sorry for her. She wanted to be part of the prom. She helped decorate too.”
“Always trying to fit in.”
“She never got married.”
“Who’d want her?” Someone suppressed a laugh.
I turned away so I wouldn’t have to look at whomever it was had made that comment.
Amelia silenced him. “She was a good person. What’s your problem?”
“Good riddance to the nut case,” the man said and walked out.
“She didn’t get pushed, did she?” I asked.
Earl who was seventy-something and worked on restoring a Metropolitan which he drove to the store sometimes said, “I saw her. She walked right in front of that car just before it accelerated. It’s like she knew what was going to happen. There was something wrong with that woman.”
“She was autistic,” I told him. “I had an autistic older sister and I recognized it right away.” Autism wasn’t diagnosed as often fifty years ago when Amelia and my grandmother and Rose were young. Women like Rose were ignored and teased, bullied and hurt instead of helped.
“Go take a break,” Amelia said kindly. She was a good friend of my grandma’s and she knew how my sister died.
I should have gone into the rest room. Instead I sat at the counter and let all the old timers watch me cry. They had all hated Rose because she was different. Most of them didn’t understand why she was different. They just hated her. But I had loved her just like I love my sister.
On the juke box Nat King Cole sang,
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