Shortly after Vine Hill Road and before Summit Road, the four lanes of Highway 17 pass through a short mountainous section. The road has no shoulder or rail here, only clifflets guard the edge. Sectioned pieces of cement separate the two lanes of northbound traffic from the two lanes of southbound. Acting as the sole corridor between Santa Cruz and Silicon Valley, the highway has a steady flow of business hour traffic and careless drivers often crash on this five mile stretch.
The boys stood on the northbound embankment staring down at the darting cars. Their feet were cold; ten tiny pinky toes were turning Kool-Aid blue. Real men don’t wear shoes to run, or so they had been told my Frank, Alpha Kappa Phi’s Santa Cruz Chapter head of hazing. The boys had left their shoes at the car a mile down the road following Frank to the hillside.
“If you want to be an Alpha man, you have to be aggressive. Think ten seconds or less. Run down the hill, cross the first two lanes, vault the cement barricade and in another couple seconds you’ll be home free. We’ll pick you up on the other side of the road. We’ll get you drunk and take you to the sorority party later. Any questions?”
“Yes, I have one.” Justin’s hands shook. He stabbed them into the pockets of his corduroys in attempt to hide his nervousness.
“Yes, What?” Frank wasn’t a fan of questions; they made his brow furrow into a series of unattractive diagonals.
“Sir, yes sir,” Justin tried to stand straight and throw his shoulders back. “I have a question, sir.”
“Justin sir.” He wiggled his toes on the cold hillside.
“What is it?”
“What happens if one of us, uhmm…” Justin thought for a moment. Intro to Feminism, Slave Narratives of the 1800s, and daily interactions with the transgender kid down the hall had left him uncertainly aware of political correctness. “What happens if one of us is seriously or grievously injured in such a way that normal and daily functions become difficult?”
“Don’t get hit and you won’t get crippled.” Alpha Kappa Phi held an annual Clint Eastwood marathon, which Frank organized. Last week the boys had watched Every Which Way But Loose and Frank imagined himself to be Philo Beddoe, a trucker and brawler who spoke more with his fists than his mouth. He dropped the line in the slow style of Eastwood, flexing his jaw. He’d practiced it in the mirror, liking the way his jaw line looked when he uttered that last word, “crippled.”
“Alpha Kappa Phi has been doing this for years and so far there hasn’t been a single injury,” Frank’s said with a politician’s honesty. This was the second year that the stunt had been pulled. Last year the initiates had lined up and no one had run, save Frank and he’d made it across.
“Line up and get ready to run. One at a time. Since Jason here,” Frank pointed at Justin, “has so many questions. He gets to go first.”
Justin looked down at the highway feeling a desperate need to urinate. Stepping down the hill, he watched the traffic wiz by. A Santa Cruz Metro bus chugged along, followed by a small pickup with a No Enemy bumper sticker, and then a silver Audi. Justin closed his eyes and stepped into the road. A Honda Accord whizzed by in the next land, blasting its horn and Justin jumped back onto the hillside away from the traffic. A warm stream flooded his pants.
“Fuck it. I-I can’t do it. I can’t do anything,” Justin hid his face behind his cold hands and ran to a nearby tree. The initiates looked on sympathetically. Two stepped out of line and towards Justin. They stood next to him, not quite touching but offering fraternal conciliation. The others stared at Justin, shaking their heads.
“What the fuck man? Are you a god damn pussy or something?” Frank shook an angry finger at Justin. “God damn it.”
Justin, supporting his back against a redwood retorted, “If you’re such a man why don’t you do it?”
Frank was angry and jutted his jaw. Philo Beddoe would sock this fool but Frank thought better of it and stepped towards the highway. His salmon polo flapped as an Odwalla Delivery truck rushed past. Frank stared down the highway and bolted to the meridian. He made it easily, and straddled the concrete divider.
“Whimps! It’s easy!” He shouted. Frank took a moment to roll up his khaki Dockers and shove his toes into the end of his penny loafers. The boys watched from across the street as Frank hopped off the divider and began the final short stretch to safety.
Frank stepped into the road only to see a Mercedes Benz barreling down at him. Behind the wheel was a young trustafarian, a UCSC student who’d converted the car to bio-diesel. A thin haze of marijuana smoke clouded the Benz’s front window, and the driver accelerated hoping that the smoke would dissipate through the open sun roof. He didn’t see the young man in the road. Frank let out a desperate yelp and hopped into the next lane as the hippie car passed. He sighed, catching a view of himself in the Benz’s mirror. Frank’s forehead was smooth and relaxed. He looked more like Philo Beddoe than he ever had before. Frank flexed his jaw, marveling at himself. He never saw the truck coming.