By Susandale

Eight p.m., or thereabouts: the usual time for the droves of kids that peeled into the diner,Four Horsesat 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 up in front of him. His assignment, the bone-weary, *Heart of Darkness awaited him.

            ‘This is the third time this week I’ve attempted 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 tonight, I volunteered to short-order on my day off, so why is she coming here now?’

             The perplexities falling over Josh seemed to be caught in the illumination of the sinking sun. ‘No, it’s not the sun; it is Rita who is sailing through sunset.’

            Narrowing his eyes, he widened his imagination to Rita’s Jaguar, as a silver chariot. ‘Like  coming down from Mount Olympuspulled and being reined in by a golden goddess gliding down, but down to what?’

            He widened to fully open his eyes to the stark reality of Four Horses parking lot: pot-holes, over-stuffed garbage cans, dented cars lined up and honking their horns beside rusty call boxes.

            Josh dropped his book only to fall 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? Draped in gossamer folds, she steps into Four Horses with silver sandals that click-click her along.’

For the first time in his confident life, Josh felt low rent: grungy apron, his nose twitched with the awfulness of it: a combination of ketchup, mustard, and pickle juice merged with the piercing odor of fryer grease that permeated his hair and body, versus Rita’s goddess perfection.

            Josh’s was a common-enough reaction for mere humans, but until this very moment low rent was unknown to him. He looked up to see Rita poised and posed in the doorway. She seemed miles away:  alabaster and shimmery one moment, and in the next, a lioness prowling the jungle for a mate.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 her 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. ‘As she glides through the scruffy place, the walls seem to 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 over to the back booth, she slid into the booth in the seat across from Josh.

            Her perfume or was it Rita, Josh couldn’t be certain___ floated over to him with its elixir of mysteries: something deep, heady, but indefinable. Her perfume, or what was it that exuded from her pores? 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 seeing Rita, as they 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 what?”
            “Don’t touch me like that.”
            Barricaded behind her words, Josh said, “Like what?”
            “Like I belong to you.“ 

            ‘Not even the fingers his hand cover are Josh’s any longer,’ she thought. She belonged to someone else now, and she searched for the words, which would sever the slender thread that once connected them.

            “Alright.” When he held his hands up in surrender, he freed both Rita and himself from the place they found themselves to be, as of late: painted into separate corners. 

             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?”
            “What happened.”
            “What happened?”

            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. This time, this place: neither, nor was the terminus of which Rita had long dreamed: a ring slid on her finger with his declaration of undying love, a passionate honeymoon stretching into a happily-ever-after with two children: a boy and a girl, of course. 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 her grandma’s silver and her mother’s pewter, an ivory and amber bracelet from Russia, a Picasso sculpture from Antibes, and her lace baptismal gown brought from an island close to Venice. Once promised by her father, but not going to happen now___ a blow-out wedding in Grandma Porter’s Cathedral in downtown Cleveland: solemn Mass, heavy with white lilies and multitudes of tapered candles. An orchestra with a  trumpet would have announced her arrival down an aisle that trailed her satin train. Peals of bells greeting the guests, and from the choir loft celebratory voices would have sung out.

            None of it going to occur now: Rita’s lofty dreams and her father’s long-held promises came to an end.

‘But when? She wondered. ‘On what night of soft airs and careless passions? We first met on a hot, crazy night at Catawba Beach when the three-piece-group repeatedly played “*Night Train“ in diverse rhythms. 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 unbelievably beautiful” Later, we walked along the shoreline and looked up to see a glorious array of shooting stars. We were together and then we weren’t, and then we were again.’  

All that dreamy history in but fleeting seconds,Rita took a deep breath to expel it. And here she was at Four Horses. ’Josh and I need only clear away the debris that we’ve accumulated this past year when I was, more or less, his main squeeze, even as David and I were secretly meeting. Only then can we go on. Ah, but this is going to be 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 are about to 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, and play it straight with me! Tell me what it is that you have to say.”

            She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Play some music then. I don’t want anyone else to hear this.”

            Bewildered, Josh dug inside his pocket for a couple of quarters. After sinking them into the jukebox on the wall beside them, he held his palms up in 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 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,” she sideswiped the Restaurant with her glances taking in her surroundings: rowdy teens, some dancing, some gathered in circles laughing. Flirty-busy waitresses. Car hops bustling in and out the side door holding trays, a dishwasher carting off tubs of dirty dishes.

            Her heart took another tumble towards the ending of more than her and Josh. Directly in front of her but distancing themselves to further back, ’my peers, calls coming from the cars at the call boxes, the end of my carefree, privileged youth when the most pressing decision of the moment was, “ 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- “I’m getting married in three weeks, Josh.”

            Josh’s head fell forward. “Married?! But, but, when, what, why … “

            Rita’s eyes snapped shut: unbearable for her to see the confusion flashing across Josh’s face. With eyes yet shut, she arranged and rearranged the next words she planned to say with a touch or two of tenderness to scruff off the sandpaper-edges.

            She opened her eyes to, ‘what is the mysterious ‘happy’ shining in Josh’s face?

            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. Unaware, 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 before now, honey? 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 dare 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 don’t know anything about planning weddings, but three weeks; isn’t that sudden for 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, but 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.

            Such an immense effort it was for him to regain his balance. To steady himself, he gathered his hands within the thick mane of Rita’s hair in a motion both sensual and riveting. His hands firm on Rita’s scalp held the two of them in this time and in this place. Steady now. He had to wait 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. With his fingers yet clutching her scalp, Josh brought her 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 kids all 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 my sister’s steady: one and the same, Lea’s sweetheart and 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, and their deceits and lies?

             “It could have been anytime, too, with me working double shifts – 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 times and 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 hell: 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 rushed for the door; she flew 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 piercing 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 an inexplicable 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 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 just like that, you and I would be finished.”

            “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, 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 saw her in her silver chariot in the beginning of this nightmare night.’

Rita’s silver steeds versus the four old nags of Four Horses Restaurant: Josh suddenly realized that they were never going to be together again. ‘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 … “
            “So what?”

            “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 terrible 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 beauty 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.

            Of a’ sudden, David’s deceit to his sister hit Josh. It felt like a harsh slap across his face. ‘They are, they were a couple. Everybody knew them as together. And now this: why, Du’Jon isn’t as much as the dirt under Lea’s feet.’

             Though he was infuriated to the brink of combustion, for Rita’s sake, her pregnant, frightened sake, he tried swallowing his anger: close to impossible with the lump of rage blocked in his throat too poisonous to gulp back, and too large for words to pass around it. His words he left barred behind his grinding teeth. He was literally shaking with the enormity of his un-expelled anger. 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, prepare himself to be a fa-fa-father,” he stammered with the 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, steady 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, gawd-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 to 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 silent 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 entire body had gone limp. Silent, numb, he stood alone with tears burning his cheeks as he watched Rita drive off: golden goddess with silver steeds pulling her silver chariot up, up … and further off into the horizon of a black night, coming on hard and fast.

______*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. The Spaces Among Spaces from has been on the internet. Bending the Spaces of Time from Barometric Pressure is on the internet now.