Fated or Mated

By

Tom Snethen

 

I faced a gauntlet through a purgatory of my own making. Ryan Hogue, fifty, unready for whatever awaited.

“Wassamatter, honey? Lose your spunk in the lingerie store?” Janet—my wife’s ghost. “You never bought anything that sexy for me.”

I’d bought gowns and intimates ten minutes ago on speculation I’d meet a woman soon. The local widower was almost ready to meet someone and totally unfit for romance afterward. I slinked to the concourse wall and removed my jacket, revealing my shirt’s message: Do You Have a Marriageable Mother?

I stepped away and bumped a woman I knew. I stumbled but didn’t fall, trying to smile. Her lips moved as she read my shirt. She lifted her cell and clicked. Whoop-tee-do, another Facebook moment.

“Buck up, booby, and don’t wet yourself.” My ever-vigilant companion—married for life and beyond.

My idea had sounded brilliant yesterday—waltz into the mall’s food court wearing this shirt and engineer a courtship’s beginning. Now I wanted to hide behind the hair I’d surrendered this morning—my first shave in the six months since Janet had died. I should ditch my clothes and sprint naked to my car.

“Take out your car keys first.” Practical Janet.

I arrived at the food court—with dry shorts. I bought an iced tea and sat. Will my shirt work? People stopped to see who would sort me out.

Sick, I’m still sick. Six months isn’t enough time. But I can’t wait.

A woman my age approached. Her teeth glinted—embedded jewels. “Would you consider my sister?”

“Is she single?”

“She’ll file the paperwork when she clears rehab.”

“She’s not for me.”

“Strike one.” Janet.

Five women replaced her. All hail Facebook.

“What do you think of Buddhism?”

“Mom wants a threesome with me and a stranger. How’s your stamina?”

Watch the fool dance.

“You look like a Boy Scout. Ever been in the joint?”

“You got good grass?”

“Can my boyfriend and I move in?”

“Advertising pays. Strike six.” Janet’s advisory.

A firm voice spoke behind me. “Put your coat on, sir, and I’ll sit with you.”

Sir? A respectful tone?

I recognized her—Sandi’s friend from my food court scouting trip. Sandi was the lingerie store clerk who’d dented my bank account this morning. I’d first seen her last week when I’d dined here and overheard two women—Sandi and her friend—bellyaching about their mothers. That’s when I’d conceived the tee-shirt.

My visitor wore her brunette hair in a tight knot. Her rimless glasses hinted she still roasted her last suitor’s organs. Like daughter, like mother—I’d found the right quarry.

“Yes, bluebeard, you’ve found the right target.” Janet, confirming.

Sandi popped up at the edge of the court, watching.

“Pleased to meet you. I’m Ryan Hogue.”

The brunette ignored my handshake. We sat. She held a legal pad and started immediately. “I saw your hairy face on TV. Don’t Feed My Daddy.”

Not good. My daughter, Michelle, had launched a campaign to save my life during my grief-induced grease binges at Abernathy restaurants. My face covered buttons all over town saying, Don’t Feed My Daddy. “I have a hyper daughter.”

“Why’re you wearing that stupid shirt?”

I was lonely, that’s why. I was matrimonially challenged, that’s why. Lady, do you want your mama calling personal ads hoping to meet a handsome stranger? I’m saving your mama heartache. Look at me. Talk to me. But be careful, babe. My blood’s up, and I’m ready for your best shot. “I didn’t catch your name.”

“That’s right, you didn’t. Why’re you wearing that stupid shirt?”

Repeating the question won’t intimidate me. I’m playing our match so far over your head, I see stars below. You’ll forever ask when you lost control of our meeting. You had a reason for talking with me. Let’s get on with the game. “I want to meet an unmarried woman my age.” Give her what she wants.

“Divorced?”

“Widowed.” She’s dancing, jabbing, looking for an opening.

“Married how long?”

“Twenty-five years, three months, four days.” I watched her buckle behind those hornless rims.

The interrogation resumed. “Own your home?”

“Yes.”

“Big mortgage?”

“Paid for.” Miss, I can buy and sell you.

“Occupation?”

“Chemist.”

“Work in a lab?”

“The girls don’t let me. They say I break things.” I felt like a boxer taunting an overmatched opponent.

“What is it you do?”

I’d pay my allowance to watch a match between her and Michelle. “I tell people how to wash polar bears and blow up toilets.” Again, the truth. Mostly.

“Why the stupid shirt?”

Send the hot rock back. “I already answered that one, Your Honor.”

“How’d you know I passed the bar?”

“I didn’t. Congratulations.”

“Thank you. Why not advertise directly for the mother?”

“Lots of reasons.”

“Give me three.”

Babe, your mama better be worth the trouble. “A generation of women is mad at their mothers over unwanted blind dates. One is all I need.”

“Point taken. Give me a second.”

“My shirt allows me to interview the daughter first.”

She stopped notetaking. “Rethink that. I’m asking the questions.”

“I’ve discovered in the last minute my future stepdaughter is articulate, organized, a lawyer, and has no visible tattoos.”

I hadn’t lied to the woman and was worthy of her mother. I saw her becoming aware of this too. I had to let her finish and retain her pride.

“I should let Mom take you down. Your third reason?”

“I’m not done with number two.”

“So sue me.”

I grinned, ecstatic with my obtuseness. “You’ll have no recourse after your mother likes me.”

“She won’t. What’s the third reason?”

“The woman I want wouldn’t give my shirt a second glance.”

The junior litigator judged me as she would a cat she was debating covering the expense of declawing and neutering. She made a call. “Mom, I found you a man.”

Words can start wars.

The future justice jerked the cell away. We laughed. Laughter had been a rare commodity for me. I leaned forward but couldn’t hear the other end of the conversation.

“He’s in the food court wearing a shirt asking if I have a marriageable mother. I decided I do.”

My nameless marriage broker listened to her mother wail.

Tell your mom I don’t want marriage—but I do want into her pants. Stop! I don’t want to move on her, either. What do I want?

“Mom, be here in two minutes, or I’ll tell him where you live and how to get the best view.”

Promoted from suitor to Peeping Tom.

“You’ll know his shirt.” She hung up.

“Thanks for calling.” I’d asked for her mom and I got her. Now what?

“Mom’s two stores away. You’ll need, iron nerves, a big-game rifle, and a fistful of tranquilizer darts.”

Iron nerves? Rifle? No. I wouldn’t be able to bag this woman—she’d have to like my bait.

I offered another handshake.

She accepted. “My name is Honey.”

Honey left, and I removed my jacket. I had two minutes to contemplate my folly. What if I’d erred abysmally? Stop floundering. Grow up. I looked for a woman somewhere between forty-five and fifty-five. What a dumb, dumb, dumb idea.

“Brace yourself, sweetheart. You’re getting what you said you wanted.” Janet. My watchful, loving, sarcastic angel.

A woman walked my way. I noted her hairdo and stylish dress before her face. The vacuum cleaner from hell burst into my head, sucking out brain matter as I came face-to-face with the object of my daydreams: Pamela Burke—the leader of my only grief counseling session.

-o-

Scrunched down on her knees, Michelle Hogue spied on her father. Marriageable mother, my ass. I’ll see you in a home first, Daddy.

Michelle watched Brunette end a talk with her daddy and join a salesgirl moving toward her hiding spot. She recognized the salesgirl from Monsoon Mona’s Intimates. Michelle had received a candid picture of her father in Mona’s holding a silk gown. The small town had stifled her when she was growing up, but now it watched over her daddy and sent her updates.

Teri, Michelle’s best friend and her father’s assistant, arrived. “I came as soon as I heard. Has he totally wigged out?”

When Brunette and her friend edged into Michelle’s vantage spot, Michelle pushed back. “We were here first.”

Brunette rebutted. “We’re staying.”

Michelle stuck her head out to look and pulled back in a simultaneous action with Brunette.

The mother of one of Michelle’s old boyfriends stopped for pictures. Facebook forever

Teri pushed Michelle and Brunette apart. “Hold on. Who’re you spying on?”

“Who says I’m a spy?” Brunette ground out the words.

Michelle rifled her answer. “I do. Why’re you behaving like us?”

Brunette sighed. “My mother’s about to talk to a serial killer, and I set her up.”

“Is your serial killer six feet tall with blue eyes and wearing an insipid tee-shirt?”

“A sociopath. Are you his parole officer?”

“He’s my daddy. Is the charm school reject headed toward him your mother?”

“She was until I forced their meeting.”

“Why’d you sell her out?”

“Spite. My mom needs to know I can set up unwanted blind dates too.”

“You met Daddy, who printed a tee-shirt to trap the innocent.”

“I’m not exactly virginal. I’m a lawyer. I wanted to practice my interview technique.”

“You were outnumbered.”

Teri stopped them. “Time out, Stupids. I see where this is going.”

Stupids? Teri had brought up their joint stupidity on the night when they’d been trapped in a manure pit.

“Your point?” Brunette demanded.

Teri was adamant. “Be friends—you have a common interest. And I’ve seen that woman in Ryan’s office.”

Michelle inhaled slowly. Be friends? Is Teri delusional? No, don’t be stupid.

Michelle stuck out her hand. “Michelle Hogue, daughter of Ryan Hogue. This is Teri, who works for my father.”

Brunette shook Michelle’s hand. “Honey Burke, and my friend’s name is Sandi.”

Michelle needed data. “What happened in your dialogue with Daddy?”

“He answered my questions and maneuvered me into a corner. I surrendered Mom.”

Michelle wanted details. “Does your mother have the smarts to tackle him?”

“Mom’s assertive and intelligent and fuming. I’d say yes, but your daddy toyed with me.”

“That’s my daddy.”

Teri laughed. “And your worlds will end if they like each other. Don’t they look sweet?”

Sweet? Michelle collapsed. “No! Svengali will have his day.”

Sandi interrupted. “If he does, Pamela will be the best-dressed mistress in town.”

The three women wheeled.

“I sold Mr. Hogue over two thousand dollars’ worth of lingerie this morning on spec he’d meet a woman.”

-o-

Tongue-tied and dorky—my middle names. Women of beauty and class made me stew.

Janet? No answer. Could I skip the courtship rituals and go straight to the postnuptial contentment?

“Don’t assume too much, mush brain. Not all marriages are made in heaven.” Janet reminded me I should fear success more than failure.

Two weeks ago, I’d attended Pamela’s grief counseling session as a hairy beast with split jeans and a stained shirt. Maybe she wouldn’t recognize my bare face.

Pamela froze. “Ryan?”

I’d set the trap and snared the prey. I wavered, caught where my BS wouldn’t fly. Wait. Think. Could there exist a person as lonely as me behind Pamela’s assured deportment? I had to speak. Or choke and die. “Pamela?”

Pamela struck first. “You shaved. And styled your hair.”

Try the truth. “I’ve stopped hiding behind a mask of hair.”

“I was ready to unload on you.” She spoke as if she’d momentarily set menace aside.

“I’d love a modicum of mercy. I didn’t know you were Honey’s mother.”

“I don’t have to like what she did.”

I shoved my sweaty hands into my pockets and sat. “I wouldn’t like it either. If I can think of one reason why you should forgive, would you join me for dinner?”

Pamela remained standing. “Give me a good one, and cover that shirt.”

The shirt? Like mother, like daughter. I put on the coat. “You’ll annoy your daughter if we become friends.”

Pamela nibbled at the bait. “How?”

I was juggling live chain saws. “Honey is waiting for your call.”

“Did she ask for me to call?”

The mother of one of Michelle’s discarded boyfriends took our picture. Is her son still available?

“RYAN HOGUE! FOCUS!” Janet the drill sergeant.

What? A question? Oh, yeah—did Honey ask me to ask her mom to call?

“No, but she’s dying for you to chew her out after you steamroll me.”

“Did she say steamroll?”

“She suggested an elephant gun and a fistful of tranquilizer darts for sedating you.”

“Yes, that’s my little girl.”

Hope arrived with open wounds and knitting bones.

I saw a reflection of Michelle and Honey on their knees spying on us.

“Tell her quick. And give me your car keys.” Janet was enjoying the show.

“Houston, we have a problem.” My panic response.

“What?”

“I see a window reflection of our daughters spying on us. They look kind of stupid.”

“Let’s invite them for tea.”

Does that mean we’re a couple?

She erased my assumption. “Cancel the thought. I misspoke.”

“I see Honey’s girlfriend Sandi.”

Sandi? Honey knows about the on-spec lingerie. As does Michelle.

Pamela didn’t fuss. “How do we turn the tables?”

She asked you for advice. She might not have asked anything of any man recently. “Sit, put your hands on the table, and look interested in our conversation.” Now I sounded like a drill sergeant. “Please.”

Pamela sat, crossed her legs, and placed her hands in her lap. “What next?”

“Honey’s making a call. Ignore her.”

“How did you convince her to call me?”

Pamela’s cell rang, but she didn’t answer.

“I called her my future stepdaughter.”

Pamela’s laugh burst out. “What else did you tell her?”

“I slid around her questions about finances, marital status, and occupation.”

“Did you tell her how to scrub a polar bear?” Pamela referenced her one visit to my lab, when she’d dropped in to thank a donor for a contribution to the hospital fund and was surprised to find the giver was me—hairy me. Surrender now, woman. We are fated to be mated.

“Rein in your libido, dummy. She asked a question.” Janet.

A question? Polar bears?

“I mentioned polar bears.”

“What else?”

“I implied that if you liked me, you’d have a lifetime license to sic men after her.”

“No man should know that much about mothers and daughters.”

“I was weaned on combat between Janet and Michelle.”

Pamela laid a Don’t Feed My Daddy button on the table. “What do you get out of our introduction?”

Be subtle. Be sincere. Be everything you aren’t. “Dinner with a grown-up.”

Pamela’s cell rang again. “Ignore her?”

Janet’s participation would save me or kill me. “Now’s the time. Pounce.

Time to unleash my mouth without engaging my brain. “Tell Honey I made you an offer involving a private rendezvous, a bag of feathers, and a quart of Miracle Whip.”

 

At six, Tom Snethen wrote stories about space ships and ray guns and Martian houses—never dreaming he’d get self-flushing toilets someday. Now he’s an Oregonian writing about the saints and scoundrels he met in a career as a manufacturing chemist. His nonfiction ranges from throwing a flaming mattress out a brothel window as a volunteer fireman to borrowing a bank robber with needed skills from the penitentiary. He has written about being a widower at fifty—alone and scared. He lives to incinerate stale stereotypes—whether about industrial chemistry or the pursuit of happiness for men accidentally single. webpage www.TomSnethen.com