Skyway to Heck—Clark Humphrey
He got out of the taxi, stood up along the sidewalk-less curb, and immediately felt the same vibe of despair he’d always known around this place. A pocket of quasi-rural exurbia, stuck right between the big city and one of its more established suburbs.
The taxi driver got lost at one point, so he’d gotten to see some parts of the neighborhood he hadn’t seen in a while. He’d noticed a few relatively new McMansions and a gaudy new Buddhist temple. Otherwise the place was the same. Even the new buildings looked to him as if they’d been there a while; the cheap new materials used to make them looked like they had already been worn down by more than one or two winters. The sports bar down the hill now had a medical marijuana store next to it, but he figured it would probably still have the same dorky Budweiser bikini posters and “stretch-o-vision” flat screen TVs inside.
He walked down the gravel driveway that led from the end of the dead-end asphalt road. The house he was standing in front of, the house of so many stormy memories, only looked older and sadder. It had been over a year and a half since he’d been outside this house. He’d like to have never come back. Every instinct, every cell in his body, wanted to run. But he was determined to get this over with. He stood up straight. He sucked in his ample gut. He closed his eyes and tried to meditate. He tried to make himself “present,” to be in the Now, despite all the memories of his past in that house and his apprehensions of what might happen in there soon.
He couldn’t help it. He saw himself back in the ’90s. Before the first dotcom boom. When nerds, not fratboys, still ruled the programming trade. He had been a young man with a career and a future, but with horrid social skills and almost zero romantic self-confidence.
He had, in retrospect, been easy prey for her.
All she’d needed to do was to give him lots of cloying, clingy sex, and he had become hers. He’d remained hers through all the arguments, the distraught emotional episodes, the 9 a.m. bar-hopping sprees, the slammed doors, the teary making-up pleas, and even the (at least allegedly) unplanned pregnancy.
What had she gotten out of it, besides the kid? A few years of financial stability, and a guy who had never, ever hit back (and almost never yelled back) at her.
She’d also gotten the house, or at least the right to stay in it for the indefinite future, when she agreed to give him full custody of their then-eight year old daughter.
He’d returned here from time to time. Always at her command. Whenever he’d needed her approval for anything involving their little girl, The Ex From Heck (a term he used in deference to a running gag in “Dilbert”) would always insist that they meet at what was now her place, preferably with no attorneys or others present.
Once he was on the other side of that front door, anything could happen. She could be sweet and almost rational, especially when she was on her meds and off the sauce. Or she could alternately shriek and weep about her sorry life and her latest sorry boyfriend, and plead for more money from him in return for letting their kid take a summer abroad or take early-entrance college courses. Or she could demand he stay 10 feet away from her (exactly). Or she could insist on long-time-no-see sex. When he was lucky, this latter demand only went as far as him letting her hump his leg.
No, he thought. Don’t even think about that. Be in the Now. Be clear. Be here.
He approached the door, stood up straight again, took a deep breath, closed and opened his eyes, then rang the doorbell that he had personally installed so long ago.
She opened the door, dressed in clean clothes. She invited him in to an uncluttered living room, to sit on a non-wine-stained sofa.
With level eyes and unslurred speech, she explained she was getting her shit together at last. There was no man in her life right now, she said, and no particular need for one. Just a new sponsor who won’t let her get away with ANY bullshit.
She agreed to sign off on Roxie’s early graduation from high school. She said she understood why Roxie didn’t want to see her more often than necessary these days. She said she understood why he’d raised Roxie to be everything she herself hadn’t been—strong, smart, self-reliant. She thanked him for having done that.
He sat there, his face frozen in an open gape. He’d come to expect just about anything in these visits. But never this.