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The Death of Rita

Ryan Priest

    When I was younger I spent my days asleep and my nights surrounded by other ne’er-do-wells at the local Denny’s. We came in every night, each with the singular order of coffee. At first it had cost seventy-nine cents but as the penny dropped and the market grew it became one-fifteen for a cup of java. We paid two dollars a piece no matter what.
    We were young, late teens and a few in the early twenties. We didn’t understand about economy or business. All we knew was when the price of a cup raised we were suddenly the bad guys. To us, they were the bad guys. The managers and wait staff. We never saw the owner, ever, so our aggression at the hike was directed towards the nearest person in uniform. Debby, Donna, Mable, Edna and Rita. The names on the aprons that poured our black brew. We didn’t mean harm or disrespect but as matters were, we still left the customary two dollars. Few of us had jobs and those that did didn’t make enough to splurge. Times were tough all around. The waitresses found us more and more cumbersome as the weeks, months and subsequent years passed.
    We were horrible to any of the substitute waitresses. Ones not from our pack. We treated them like teachers, each in our post school haze believing that all adults had sworn some oath decrying that they’d help and serve the young. We were the young. Don’t blame us for this. My generation and those that followed grew up under the assumption that grown-ups served the teens. It was our time and the world knew it.
    It didn’t help that we were situated in the richest and most affluent section of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. We were the rich of the prosperous, at least our parents were, assuring us that we’d never wait tables, live on tips or face hunger. These things had also been promised.
    As the current narrator I feel no shame in admitting this. I once had these illusions. I’m sure I have others that have yet to show themselves to me in their entirety. As is, I feel only abstract sorrow and loss as I tell this tale. Please follow with me without curse or judgment upon my character. I was a child then and in some ways even now as I bring all this back to the surface.
    I was in my nineteenth year. My follower, stooge, sidekick was in his eighteenth. We both knew that our elders were stupid, without mind. Anyone with a mind would obviously not end up a waitress. My sidekick’s name was Andrew Johns but his chosen name was Tine, Chinay, as pronunciation has it. It is Gaelic for fire.
    Tine and I were a daily fixture at Denny’s. Others came and went but the two of us had staked our claim years before. Confident that no one else would amass as much time at the restaurant we consumed coffee by the gallon seldom ever buying actual food. We always left our two dollars a piece.
    Fill our coffee, take our order, make us feel important and all for two dollars grossing in an eighty-five cent tip. We were young. This is no excuse, despite what you think. He who assumes the mantle of authority, any authority, denounces any further cries of innocence. Even if it’s just the arbitrary customer is always right authority.
    Rita was our most frequent and hardest working waitress. They called themselves servers. I’ve lied about many an occupation to feel a little better about myself. I’ve been a customer service rep instead of a cashier. I’d been a quality care specialist rather than a debt collector. I hold it against no one if they do the same. Rita was our favorite and Dizzy our second. Being that neither of them ever let our cups go dry.
    When the night was deep and the darkness outside as black as pitch can be, we’d often engage our server in conversation. Dizzy had no children and had been married three times. When this story takes place she had just left her third husband for an inmate at Huntsville state prison. True, the two had never met in person but she believed there was something there. Esoteric as it may be I read her tarot cards for her whenever she asked. They said unanimously that this inmate, whose name I forget, was her destiny. Her raison d’être du jour. I never argued with the cards. In my experience then and up to this day, they are more telling than my personal intuition will ever be.
    Dizzy didn’t ask for tips and seldom charged us for our coffee. That is with Tine and myself on those nights where we read her cards. It had made me feel good to make her happy, even though doom loomed always on the horizon. I consoled myself by saying ‘You told her all that you could. Her choices are hers and hers alone. By giving a heads up you’ve done all that you could.’ With such being decided I felt free to sip my free coffee and eat my free fries. I’d traded a service. The art of the gypsy is a long and storied tradition.
    The night of this story Dizzy had been our waitress. Tine and I had shown up at our usual late night, darkened sky time. We’d ordered our coffees. Tine took one and a half creamer but I drank black. What struck us most was that it was in fact Dizzy as our server and not Rita.
    Rita was the bull. She served whichever tables she liked five nights a week. The nights Dizzy was there she got the overflow as the younger, though thirty-six year old, server. Dizzy never seemed to question her placement or argue. Later on in life I too learned the pecking order that exists in any paid position of servitude.
    “Where’s Rita?” Tine had asked noticing the break in the pattern. The night was Tuesday and we were accustomed to Rita’s hand filling our empty mugs.
    “You didn’t hear?” Dizzy said sitting down next to me pressing her hip to mine. They always chose my seat to occupy. Tine had a good hundred pounds on me and took up the entire booth to himself. I felt Dizzy’s warmth next to me. I knew that behind her shirt there rested two bra’d breasts and behind her navy blue pants there sat a haired, blonde or brown pinkness. I was young and didn’t look at physical beauty. Her presence aroused me. In my later years I’d understand this as a mere biological happenstance but at the time I only knew the close proximity to a woman, any woman, struck a spur in my loins.
    “What?” I asked hoping deep in the back of my mind that the older Dizzy would somehow recognize my burning desire and take me back into the manager’s camera-less office to do something about it.
    “Rita died last night.”
    “What?” Tine said in good form neglecting any sign of emotion.
    “What?” I repeated firmer but at the same time feeling the suffocating weight of desire giving way to a fear. The fear of change that eventually strips everyone of his or her youth.
    “Last night she had a heart attack.”
    “She worked last night.” I said remembering my full coffee cup and the dry but humorous sarcasm that accompanied each of Rita’s nights. She had been full of life and sass the night before. How could she have succumbed to something as trivial as death?
    “I know. Late last night I wasn’t working. Were y’all here?” The ‘y’all’ reminded me of her poor upbringing and circumstances. As a youth I never saw it as anything more than accessibility. Poor chicks knew how to put out.
    “We left around two.” Tine put in. I wasn’t concentrating on the conversation. Something about the word ‘died’ had sent me into recoil. Now I had resigned to staring at her breasts. It was cold and I could see two tents of nipple sprouting under the light blue work shirt. I knew pink existed behind and no matter the wear and tear I longed to at least feel the texture.
    “Well around four, about an hour before shift change Rita fell down.”
    “Fell down?” Tine repeated.
    “Yeah. When she got up she was out of it.”
    “Did the fall hurt her?” I asked in a voice that almost rang of a British accent, a habit I had into my early twenties thinking it made me sound more intellectual. For Dizzy’s benefit I wanted to seem compassionate.
    Dizzy turned to me to respond and I felt all the blood leave my skull as her deep blue eyes met my black ones. Her skin was white, not snow white, just clear with varicose veins jumping out from every angle. I felt a deeper passion towards her in this moment. Here was the archetypal female. Age in the thirties, skin without health, beaten down by life but still pink and nubile in the right places. I could appreciate such a work of art. The convicts couldn’t. I could admittedly only offer one night at the most. Being that my age precluded me from any long term commitment. But I assured with my eyes that that one night would yield more passion, acceptance and pleasure than she had ever before seen.
    “She just got lightheaded and fell on the tile. I wasn’t here either. But afterwards she got this real big pain in her chest.” Dizzy said looking me in the eye. Eye contact has never been my strong suit. It makes me feel weak and vulnerable. I believed the eyes to be the mirrors of the soul and I feared if anyone ever looked into my soul that they’d forever abhor me for my devious thoughts.
    “Jesus.” I said looking away from Dizzy, for the first time considering Rita’s struggle.
    “Yeah, she said her chest hurt and she needed to go to hospital but Dave wouldn’t let her go.
    “What?” I asked in the closest I come to a yell. Dave was the assistant manager and the bane of all our friends. His job, as we saw it, was to protect the older customers from our vulgarity, jokes and appearance which seemed to strike fear and loathing in anyone over forty. We hated him as much as he hated us. This was one of the reasons the waitresses loved us. We would go off on their boss if given enough stimuli.
    “Yeah, she couldn’t even stand. So Chuck finally said he’d take her to the hospital.”
    “Chuck?” Tine asked in amazement. Chuck was in his late thirties, or forties or fifties it was all old to me. We, that being my crew and myself, never spoke to him. The elders of us would smile from time to time as he was also a regular. But he kept to himself and we kept to our own age bracket. The thought of Chuck being the only one to help Rita astounded us. We knew him as the old guy who worked at Wal-Mart night stocking. A grown-up loser who, judging by his station in life, was without intelligence, cunning or virtue. The thought that he might possess some character scared us. Character was all we relied on to separate us from the masses.
    “He took her to the hospital and waited but they said she had a heart attack and died on the table.” Dizzy said and her pinkened blue eyes, surrounded by the violet-black hue of sleeplessness began to tear. Tine and I, as a rule, never cried nor did we show any emotion in the least bit. It was why we were better than them.
    “They should sue Denny’s and Dave.” Tine said with a nod. He understood the situation. Sue the bad guy, get some money and everything would be okay.
    “I’ll miss her.” I said into Dizzy’s eyes. She hadn’t broken her gaze from me since our eyes met. Hidden in my words was a deeper meaning. One that suggested we both knew pain and that somehow, our coupling would alleviate it. These words I could and would never speak but I hid them behind my returned stare.
    “I will too.” Dizzy said breaking gaze to look down at the table.
    She and Rita had been best friends. We all knew that. On their shared days off they’d hit the bars together. We, as the young, were subjected to their tales of debasement and debauchery whenever they came back.
    “To Rita.” Tine lifted his cup and I too obligatorily. We drank, him from the brown creamed cup and I from my own blackened addiction. This was all we had. We were without any real money or the experience to help Dizzy emotionally.
    “You know when services will be held?” I asked thinking of the sight of twenty or thirty black clad youths gathering at the wake of an old woman. No matter what they thought they’d know she had meant something to someone. I was sure that death offered no other reward than a gigantic gathering of mourning.
    “Her family is having her body shipped back to Michigan.”
    “Her son?” I asked recalling everything Rita had ever told me. She had no husband, no daughters, only a son whose picture she carried in her wallet even though he never called.
    Her son didn’t love her. At least not enough to take care of her or listen to her day to day sorrows. We did, the loyalists of Denny’s. We were our own family comprised of the regulars, the wait staff and even Dave in his own little way. Now one of us was gone and things would never be the same.
    “I have to see if those guys want anything.” Dizzy said wiping her face and standing to present the respectable image for a table of yuppie drunks who the night had swept in.
    “You know what we have to do.” Tine asked me in his stable monotone. For that I still have undying respect. No matter what Tine kept his composure. He followed all of the rules that I merely professed.
    “Go to the forest.” I said with my own heartless grin. The forest was our holy place. We would mourn there alone amongst the trees. The bark never tells secrets and even in our ignorant youth we knew this.
    We each downed our remaining coffee with a gulp and got up to leave. When Tine wasn’t looking I felt the spot where Dizzy had been sitting. It was warm. Somewhere deep inside our feelings were mutual. Something beyond logic and beyond reason attracted us to one another. It would turn out to be an attraction outside of reality. She would get transferred and I’d leave Denny’s for my own hermitage.
    Tine, to this day, still shows up every night for his obligatory cup of coffee, now at one seventy-nine. He still leaves only two dollars.
    Something had changed when Rita died and the three of us had all taken it differently. Dizzy and I had left but Tine, resigned to his apathetic ambivalence, had stayed.
    Someday Dizzy will die. A heart attack at some other Denny’s or I-hop while serving her last cup of coffee. Tine will probably die drinking his. I, well mortality has never played a big part in my life, but I assume my death will come someday while I am alone without anyone to gossip, gab or feel the need to compose for. I like it this way. Knowing that when or if my time ever comes that I’ll ruin no one’s night but my own.

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