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Next Exit (1990)

Next Exit (1990)

©1990, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (1990). Next exit. Unpublished short story.







Next Exit

A Short Story by Dallas Denny


Traffic was so bad even the helicopters keeping watch on the vehicles below were having to look out for each other. The sun was blisteringly hot. Martin Baker, his head out the window in a futile attempt to see what was causing the gridlock, allowed his bare elbow to rest momentarily on the sleek black surface of his sporty new Mitsubishi sedan. The paint had been heated to near incandescence. He yelped in pain, cursing, then brought head and arm inside the car and put up the window. The darkened glass cut down on the noise and the glare from the pavement, but Martin wasn’t content to sit in his air-conditioned automotive box. His adrenal glands, overactive at the best of times, kicked into high gear. He pounded in frustration on the steering wheel and then cut the car left onto the shoulder. Slamming the transmission into reverse, he backed past the stalled lines of cars and trucks. He went, oversteering, the wrong way up the entry ramp he had just passed. At the top of the ramp, he jammed the ‘Bishi in drive and pulled out in the path of a lumbering Conestoga of a semi. The driver of the truck made his dissatisfaction known by a blast of the air horn; Martin showed him a jaunty finger and swerved around the station wagon ahead of him, in front of a Mercedes in the second lane and a Ford in the third, and into the fourth lane, the inside lane, which was clear. Ignoring the speed limit, he accelerated to a pleasant, if illegal, seventy-five miles per hour. He turned to Judy, sitting white-faced beside him, and said, “Sorry about all that.” She didn’t reply, just pulled her seat belt more snugly around her. “Be that way, then,” he growled.

Martin had been living in the city all his life, but he had never seen this road before. It was apparently new, the highway signs not up yet. Strange that he hadn’t read about it or noticed the construction. It was nearly deserted, though, and that was what was important at the moment. It would take him somewhere, and wherever that was was fine with him, so long as he didn’t have to sit at a standstill in traffic.

He glanced in the mirror, liking what he saw. His hair, layer-cut, was graying fashionably. Most of the gray was at his temples. He was lean. His chin had a cleft. His skin was tan from a recent trip to Cancun, firm from frequent workouts. He ate right. His suit was first-rate. He wore a gold Rolex. His car was a statement, and not just something to get him from one place to another. He was a senior partner in his firm. He had a portfolio of stocks and bonds and mutual funds. Life was good. He was a success. True, his obligations had prevented him from finishing college, but he had made it nevertheless.

Martin changed lanes to avoid an Infiniti and, without looking at her, thought about Judy, his wife. Judy, who was not aging gracefully. Judy, whose skin was milk-white with a blue undertone, but beginning to sag, who refused to cut her hair, letting it hang loose down her back. Judy, whose upper arms and thighs ran to cellulite. Judy, who had borne him two children who were now in grad school, and whose body was an advertisement of that fact. Judy, who was looking more and more matronly. Martin rocked his body slowly to and fro in the bucket seat and thought of Leandra, his mistress. By the end of the year it would be she, and not Judy, who rode beside him. He had plans for Judy. Faithful Judy. Fat Judy. Clinging-vine Judy. He was sure she would fall apart after the divorce.

After a time, Judy spoke. “Where are we going?”

He had loved her, once. Now he could think only of getting rid of her. “I’m hoping this will run into the loop road. It seems to be headed in that general direction. I couldn’t take any more of that traffic.” Martin looked at Judy as he spoke, was surprised to see she had colored the gray in her hair. In fact, she was looking noticeably better—younger. He peered at the instrument panel of the Volvo, which tended to run hot. If he was made a partner, he would trade it for a Jaguar, or maybe that sporty Mitsubishi.

“I’m up for junior partnership,” he bragged to Judy. “I think it’s a shoe-in. I’m going to trade this heap for something nicer.”

“Please remember the twins will be going to college next fall,” Judy told him. “That will be expensive.”

Martin grunted, didn’t reply. A thought had occurred to him. Who was watching the kids? Twelve-year-olds weren’t really capable of looking after themselves. “We’ve got to get a car with an air conditioner,” he growled. “I hate this Maverick. Damn Detroit for doing away with vent windows.” He reached over and squeezed Judy affectionately. “Within a year or two I’ll be head of the department, and we can get rid of this old tub and get something nice. A Saab or Volvo.”

Judy laughed, tossing her long hair in the wind, her figure thin and youthful. “Martin, I’m pregnant. The doctor says it will be twins.”

“That’s wonderful!” God, he loved her. It would mean dropping out of college for a semester or two, but Judy came first. His duty was clear, and so was the road ahead, except for a produce truck, an old-timey job. It had running boards. He passed it. Suddenly, he frowned. “That’ s funny.”

“What?” Judy asked, adjusting the vent window of the little VW Beetle, letting the resulting stream of air fan out her hair. “God, it’s hot.”

“I seem to remember it was cool in this car. And nicer, somehow. And I thought this was a multi-lane road.” He was getting irritated with the Edsel ahead of him.

“Your mind is playing tricks on you, Marty.”

“Guess so.” He pulled his long hair behind his ears. “I’ve decided to go to the university,” he told her. “I’ve been thinking things over. I want to go to college. I don’t want to have children until after I graduate.”

Martin knew something was terribly wrong, but he couldn’t quite place it. It was more than the fact that he was too young to drive, that he had no license, that his father would kill him when he found out Martin had taken the family’s Studebaker. No, it was more than that. Wait! Judy! Who was Judy? Who were Andrea and Todd? Judy was his—wife! Yes. And Andrea and Todd were his children. Yet he had never married. He was too young to be married. But he had these memories, all these memories.

Ahead, the pavement ended and the road continued as a gravel trail. Ahead, all the cars were black, and two or three of them seemed to be Model T’s. Martin found a cut and backed the Packard into it. He could barely reach the pedals. He turned the car, heading back in the direction he had come. Soon, the pedals of the Studebaker were easier to reach.

Judy snuggled against him, told him she was pregnant. The twins grew older and were again in college.

The car was cool again, the highway six lanes wide. Judy’s hair showed gray. Martin looked at her with distaste. Tonight, he would tell her he wanted the divorce.

Ahead, Martin spotted his exit. The traffic slowup on the road below seemed to have abated. He began to move into the exit lane, but a Mayflower van loomed suddenly on the right, and after he had accelerated to pass it, the ramp had gone by. Damn! Now he would have to drive into the heat-mirage distance and turn around at the next exit.

The ride of the car was smoother. Judy lay back in the seat, her body turned toward her husband, the car driving itself—or, rather, being controlled remotely by satellite link-up. She was thin and tan, her hair showing no trace of gray, but the fine lines around her eyes showed the toll taken by the years and by Martin’s unexpected death. Who would have thought his heart would have given out like that? He was so trim, so athletic, so health-conscious. And who would have thought she would find strength in her grief, would get herself into shape, would find a new husband?

In the distance, on the highway, the wheels of the cars were disappearing, the vehicles drifting lazily toward the sky.