Part One (late 1950’s)
Eight p.m. or thereabouts: the on-target time for the droves of kids that peeled in at seven___ to peel out. Josh put Reggie in charge of p.m. fries and cokes before he plunked down in the back booth with a book propped in front of him. His assignment, the bone-crushing
*Heart of Darkness awaited him.
‘This is the third time this week I’ve tried to plod through this ball-breaking rag.’
Stubbing his cigarette, he was about to turn another page when he glanced out the
window and saw Rita’s jaguar racing around the corner.
‘Huh, what’s this? When Rita told me she couldn’t make it on night off, I volunteered to
short-order. So why is she coming here now?’
He blinked, focused, and looked again. Conrad’s jungle, Rita couldn’t see him tonight.
Rita driving in the parking lot. Perplexities were falling over Josh. They seemed caught in the illumination of a sinking sun.
‘No, it’s not the sun; it is Rita. She is sailing through sunset.’
Narrowing his eyes, he widened his imagination to Rita’s Jaguar, as a silver chariot, like the ones he saw in MGM movies: those old-Roman flicks, clicking swords and screaming Christians tossed to the lions.
‘A chariot coming down from Mount Olympus being guided and reined in by a golden goddess gliding down, but down to what?’
He widened then fully opened his eyes to the stark reality of the Restaurant that he managed: Four Horses. In its parking lot, pot-holes, over-stuffed garbage cans. And lined up behind rusty call boxes, the rods and jalopies of honking horns, hollered greetings, and whistles behind teeth.
Dropping his book, Josh fell back in the booth. ‘So what if she canceled our date tonight, as she does so often these days? How can I stay angry at this exquisite goddess pulling in the reins to halt her chariot?’
When she stepped out from her chariot, Josh saw her draped in the gossamer folds of a silky fabric. She swished and sashayed her way into Four Horses. And for the first time in all of his busy, confident life, Josh felt low rent. A combination of ketchup, mustard, and pickle juice on his grungy apron___ merged with the piercing odor of fryer grease that permeated his clothes and hair. His nose twitched with the awfulness of it, versus Rita’s goddess perfection. His disgust would be a common-enough reaction for mere humans, but until this very moment low rent emotions were unknown to Josh.
He looked up to see Rita poised and posed in the doorway. Miles away she seemed. Alabaster and shimmery one moment, and in the next, a golden lioness prowling the jungle for a mate.
But blinded by the sun exploding over the lake in blazes of sunset, at first glance Rita wasn’t able to find Josh. He saw her searching with eyes darting through the Restaurant.
“Hey, Rita, over here,“ he called out in a voice he struggled to hold steady.
A nod for acknowledgment before Rita headed his way.
‘In her silver sandals, she glides through this scruffy place and the walls slip back into the foundation. Her movements carefully conducted, as though she is performing: Rita,
continually the presence, now as ever.’
When she made her way to the back booth, she slid into the seat across from Josh; troubled lines knit her brow. Her mouth and shoulders she held tight.
Her perfume or was it Rita, Josh often wondered ___ floated over to him with its elixir of mysteries. Seemingly exuding from her pores: something deep, heady, but indefinable. Rita and her fragrance wrapping Josh up, while her gestures, the set of her chin, shoulders stiff, body squeamish___ were saying don‘t touch.
But Josh wasn’t seeing the forbidden signs. He was, instead, seeing Rita, as the two of them were in the beginning of their romance when she gave him every indication of wanting them to be a couple.
His hand moved over hers. Inadvertently, mistakenly, and oh so futilely, he was trying to take her back to that time.
“Don’t touch me like that.”
Barricaded behind her words, Josh said, “Like what?”
“Like I belong to you.“
A fierce stab! Involuntarily, his shoulders rounded his chest. But it was too late. Her words pierced his chest to shatter his heart.
While Rita was thinking, ‘not even the fingers his hand cover are Josh’s any longer.’
She belonged to someone else now, and she searched for the words, which would sever the slender thread that once connected them.
He held his hands up in surrender to free both Rita and him from the place they found themselves to be, as of late: painted into separate corners with the paint still wet.
He said, “I am sorry I couldn’t talk to you when you called, Rita, but I was in the middle of ...“
Rita’s expression stopped him cold: rebuke flashed with impatience.
“Well, you know how it gets around here.“
“This isn’t about you, Josh; this is about me.”
“What is about you?”
David happened before Josh; he happened after Josh. And now Rita had no place left for Josh in her life rapidly turning topsy-turvy: Josh, but a trespasser in the aftermath of secret
passions that brought Rita to this place at this time. A lone figure vague and far-off in darkening skies.
But this moment, this place: neither, nor was the terminus of which Rita had long dreamed. Dreadful these moments ticking by, and so again she slipped inside her dream. A ring
slid on her finger with David’s, and only David’s declaration of undying love. A passionate honeymoon stretching into a happily-ever-after with two children: a boy and a girl, naturally. Rita’s dreams she cradled in a hope chest of candlelight and whispered endearments, while inside her actual hope chest laid priceless treasures, a dowry, really. Tucked in amongst
Grandma Porter’s silver and her mother’s pewter, an ivory and amber bracelet from Russia, a Picasso sculpture from Antibes, and her own intricate-lace, baptismal gown brought to the states from an island near Venice.
Once promised by her father, but not going to happen now, tears in her eyes when she thought of it___ a blow-out wedding in Grandma Porter’s Cathedral in downtown Cleveland. The entire scenario rolled out in sequences she’d been planning since forever. The Cathedral heavily-scented with lilies while tapered candles flickered at a solemn Mass: An orchestra with trumpet would announce her arrival down an aisle that trailed her satin train. Peals of bells greeting the
guests, and from the choir loft, celebratory voices singing out when she appeared.
But none of it was going to occur now: Rita shook herself from her lofty dreams and her father’s long-held promises. ‘They’ve all come to an abrupt end, but when?’ she wondered.
‘On what night of soft airs and careless passions did ‘it’ occur?’
Another journey back in time... back before Josh: back to the beginning with David.
‘We first met on a hot, crazy night at Catawba Beach. While a combo repeatedly played *Night Train,' a drunken sailor on leave kept hitting on me. He was icky, scary persistent until David knocked him flat. And while the dizzy sailor was groaning on the dance floor, David said, “He’s not fully to blame, you know. You are breath-stopping gorgeous.”
Breath-taking gorgeous, breath-stopping ... “ -Treasuring his words: remembering them with a warmth that spread over her entire body.
‘Later, when we walked along the shoreline, we looked up to see a glorious array of shooting star’, she further remembered.
‘We were together and then we weren’t, and then we were again.’
All that history in but fleeting seconds, Rita’s deep breath expelled it.
And here she was now at Four Horses.
’Josh and I need only clear away the debris that we’ve accumulated this past year when I was, well, more or less, his main squeeze, even as David and I were secretly meeting. But I must tell Josh the results. Only then can we go on. Ah, but this is going to be difficult, so very difficult.’
Laying her head on the back of the booth, Rita shut her eyes. ‘Unbearable for me to look into the direct, uncomplicated blue of Josh’s eyes when I reveal the deceptions, which will change the courses of our lives: all three of us.’
She made tight knots of her fists. “Help me out, Josh; this isn’t going to be easy.”
“I can see that it isn’t. Quit your peek-a-booing, Rita. Just play it straight with me! Tell me what it is that you have to say.”
She took a deep breath only to let it out slowly. “Play some music then. I don’t want anyone else to hear this.”
Bewildered, Josh dug inside his pocket for some change. After sinking a quarter into the jukebox on the wall beside them, he held his palms up. An obligatory gesture that preceded an old game on theirs. Josh dropped in the quarters; Rita selected the songs. Though she went along with their old game, this time, like never before, she did so without so much as a glance at what would be playing.A short while into *Billy Holiday’s,*”Autumn In New York,”___ to delay the inevitable, she sideswiped the Restaurant with glances taking in her surroundings.
Groups of rowdy teens, some dancing, some gathered in circles. Laughing. Flirty-busy waitresses. Car hops bustling in and out the side door carrying trays. A harried dishwasher carting off tubs of dirty dishes.
Her heart took a tumble. Another ending of more than Josh ... ’all over soon.’But because she was Rita, she turned to focus on Rita. ‘Homework, proms, flirting, shopping. The end of my carefree youth when my most pressing decision was the moment. Leather or cashmere for Homecoming? Shrimp cocktail or lobster bites when I lunch with grandma at the
Yacht Club, but now ...’Squaring her shoulders to her new realities, Rita thought, ‘I must get this over with and as quickly as possible.’
-Which was the reason she blurted out- “Josh, I’m getting married in three weeks.”
Josh’s head fell forward. “Married?! But, but when, when, why ... “
Rita’s eyes snapped shut; unbearable for her to see the confusion flashing across Josh’s
face. With eyes shut, she arranged and rearranged the words she planned to say. She then added a touch or two of tenderness to scruff off the sandpaper-edges. She opened her eyes to wonder, ‘what is the mysterious ‘happy’ shining in Josh’s face?’
But before she could get a grip on Josh’s twinkles and glows reaction, she was hearing him say, “So, you are proposing, are you?”
Her eyes widened in disbelief.
He continued. ‘So this is the reason, Rita, that you and I have hung on through all that we’ve been sloughing through lately. All this time you wanted commitment. Why didn’t you say so, girl? I realize I’m a clod when it comes to guessing what you want from me, but, Rita, you gave me not even a hint.”
“But, Josh ... “
“If it is commitment that you want, commitment is what I will give you and in full doses, too, beginning with an elaborate proposal, and on my knee yet. The ring, well it won’t be what I
wanted for you, which explains why my pledge has taken so long. I didn‘t think; it didn’t even cross my mind ...”
“But, Josh ...”
“In my wildest dreams I never let myself hope that you would want to be the wife of a restaurant manager. You, a surgeon’s daughter, way so above me both socially and financially, why would you come down to the greasy spoon of Four Horses?”
“Josh, that’s not what I’m trying to say ...”
“Three weeks though? I know squat about planning weddings. But three weeks? Even I figure, well, that’s not enough time to plan a wedding. Or are you wanting me to lean a ladder up
to Doc’s place, and ...”
Rita’s eyes spilled over with the tears that must wash away Josh’s foolish conclusions. “I am pregnant, Josh,” she said flatly, though as gently as she could.
“What, what: pregnant?”
Pregnant - a foreign word too female for male understanding: a word like a treacherous curve. Presto - right out in front of Josh: too sudden for him to put the brakes on - too sharp for him to drive around.
“Pregnant, but how? We haven’t ... “
Bang into a brick wall - knocked flat-out! Like a balloon with the air escaping, Josh was helplessly zigzagging through the winds of change. Soaring up when he thought Rita wanted to marry him only to spiral down with doubts and half-formed conclusions. But when the lightening
truth struck him, Josh crashed with whirlwind speed into the reality of Four Horses’ drudgery. Greasy grill, rusty call boxes, brimming over garbage pails ... and pregnant, pregnant, pregnant.
Such an immense effort it was for Josh to regain his balance. To steady himself, he gathered his hands within the thick mane of Rita’s hair. A riveting motion, both sensual and commanding. His hands firm on Rita’s scalp held the two of them in this time and in this place.
Steady now. He waited for the room to stop spinning with pregnant, pregnant, pregnant swirling around him.
Rita shut her eyes; bar them she must from seeing the pandemonium that distorted Josh’s features. All coming together: crashing. Confusion, rage, deep hurt. With fingers yet clutching her scalp, Josh brought Rita around to face him.
Feeling his fingers firm on her scalp, Rita slowly opened her eyes and looked up at him warily.
He was saying, “Let me guess the father-to-be, slash, groom.”
“Josh, keep it down; there are so many around us.”
“What the hell’s the difference? In three weeks, isn’t that what you said, three weeks and it’s a done deal.”
“You needn’t be so crass.”
“It’s about to get a whole lot crasser, Rita. Could the father of your baby-to-be maybe, just maybe, be your old flame still burning bright: Du’Jon?“ Josh demanded in words emerging in such tight bites, they poisoned the very air they were breathing.
His hands left her head and fell to tighten on Rita’s shoulders; he was yet trying to steady himself in a room dizzily swirling around him: spinning with the whirlwinds of Rita and David:
David and Rita: their deceits, their lies?
He continued. “It could have been anytime, too, with me working double shifts and this fucking summer school,“ he spat furiously, as though it were the books, pens, and grill that
impregnated Rita. “When Rita, when and where did the two of you, you and Du’Jon ...?“
“What is it that you want from me, Josh? The time: the place? The times: the places?”
His hands flew from her shoulders. Trying to bar her words from landing on him, he held his arms in front of his face. “My god, Rita, no! No, don’t tell me!”
Rita stood. “I am leaving, Josh.”
Flee she must from the pain that filled Josh’s face. Nothing in Rita’s privileged life had prepared her for this hellish predicament. All of it: her mother scathing her with vitriolic words, her father mute and despondent, David’s silent desperation, and now Josh’s agony. Up, to be away from the booth, Rita ran for the door. She rushed out. In visibility of her
car and escape when she was seeing, no, she was feeling, not Josh’s, but David’s eyes searing her. David’s eyes pierced her through the dark. Only by the fearsome light in David’s eyes was Rita able to find the father of her unborn child. Running through the parking lot, she clutched her forehead with tight fingertips; she was attempting to block out the anguished light in David’s eyes.
Once, when Rita was a child, her father trapped a stray cat in the gardener’s shed. She never forgot the cat’s demonic desperation begging for release. David’s eyes bored into Rita with that same desperation.
She had just reached her car and was opening the door when a sickness moved from her stomach to her throat. She feared the vomit that came without warning these days. She backed up and stopped. Overcome with nausea, she bent over the open door and took deep breaths to hold back the sickness that she felt burning in her throat. Thus, she didn’t see Josh, suddenly beside her. But when she felt a hand over hers, stunned, she looked up and into his face gone pale.
“You canceled our date tonight, only to come here with this?”
Her mouth agape with an answer she didn’t have.
“Maybe you figured that I would read your nuptials in the society page, and when I did, I’d just fade into the background. -Shrug my shoulders and figure, 'Well, that’s the breaks', and
you and I would be kaput.”
“Shortly after I cancelled tonight, Josh, I had a crisis of conscience. I realized that much as I dreaded it, I had to tell you.”
“I am on a merry-go-round, Josh. I’m going around and up and down.”
“A ride, however, that you’ve wanted to take for a long time.”
“Not like this,” she sobbed.
Josh’s face softened with the love that he felt for Rita, ‘strangely enough, as powerful now, as when I imagined her in a silver chariot earlier tonight. Rita’s silver steeds: versus the four old nags of Four Horses Restaurant.’
With his heart shattering into a million pieces Josh suddenly realized that they were never going to be together again. ‘But me and Rita: we were never meant to be together. I guess I knew it from the first, but I was lured by her lavish beauty and sensual ways.’
Gathering Rita close to his chest, Josh held her torment against the tangled mess he had yet to sort through. With fury tempered with tenderness, he moved outside of himself to comfort Rita. Circling his waist, Rita sunk within the warmth of his strength.
“David is so, so ... “
“It’s not to be explained: The light in the back of his eyes: it’s fearful, explosive. He says nothing, but his eyes burn me with a, I don’t have a word for it, it’s a fearful light.”
Josh’s anger mounted. He clenched his jaw so tight that it hurt. He wanted so much for Rita to share his tomorrows, and her sensuality to lessen the hardness of his days___ that the very thought of David sulking around and worrying Rita, who was carrying his child, enraged him.
Though he was infuriated to the brink of combustion, for Rita’s sake, her pregnant, frightened, disappointed sake, he tried swallowing his anger. Impossible, though. The lump of rage blocked in his throat was too poisonous to gulp back, and too large for words to pass around it. His words he left barred behind his grinding teeth. Yet and still, with clenched jaw and red-rage face, he stiffened his back to soldier on.
Holding Rita against his chest, Josh pulled himself together. He said “Maybe it’ll take that bas--as—e-er, take Du’Jon. Take him some time to get used to the idea of being married.
Some time, to, ah, get ready to be a fa-fa-father,” he stammered with words he surely did not want to say.
“No, no!” Rita stood back so that she might fully explain her ordeal to the right-on sturdiness of Josh. Everlastingly, Josh had been Rita’s on-target steady: so straightforward, and so in love with her.
“It is more complicated than that, Josh.”
“Frightened, maybe, confused? Oh hell, I don’t know. And what’s more, I don’t give a good, god-damn.”
Slashes of rage and grief were ripping Josh apart; he felt them tearing at him. He laid his head against Rita’s even as he held her so close, she could feel the sobs wrenched from his gut.
Stroking his head, Rita murmured soft caring things to Josh: tender endearments such as she wished her mother would have spoken to her when Rita told her that she was pregnant.
She felt Josh’s tears bathing her shoulder. And in the grandeur of a purple twilight baptizing the horizon, Rita finally, belatedly knew how much she would miss Josh ... his abiding strength, his decisive moves, the certainty of his love and adulation.
“Rita, I don’t know where I’m going. As long as you were with me, wherever it was, it was a future that held promises. How can I trudge on without you?”
“Oh, Josh, I don’t know. I can’t think beyond the baby, marriage, David’s quiet rage. I’m living from moment to moment. I don’t know how you will carry on without me. I’m so sorry, but I can’t help you. I don’t know how. ”
Somehow, Rita’s words to Josh caused her to be antsy. She twisted away from the shelter of his embrace. Not all that difficult. Exhausted with anguish, Josh’s body had gone limp: his mind paralyzed to numb.
Standing alone with tears burning his cheeks, he watched Rita drive off. Golden goddess: silver steeds pulling her chariot up, up... and further off into a horizon filled with dark and
______*Heart of Darkness by writer Joseph Conrad: 1857 - 1924
______*Autumn in New York by composer Vernon Duke: 1903 –1969
____ __ * Billy Holliday: Blues and Jazz singer: (1915 – 1959)
_______*Night Train: lifted from Duke Ellington’s Happy Go Lucky Album and recorded by Jimmy Forest 1951
About the author: Susandale’s poems and fiction are on WestWard Quarterly, Mad Swirl, Penman Review, The Voices Project, and Jerry Jazz Musician. In 2007, she won the grand prize for poetry from Oneswan. She's the author of The Spaces Among Spaces and Bending the Spaces of Time from Barometric Pressure.