Death by Knife and Fork
From the Novel
Do You Have a Marriageable Mother?
“Fated or Mated” – November First 2017
“Break-In to a Heart Break” – December First 2017
“Death By Fork” – December Fifteenth 2017
“Shut Out” – January First 2018
My name is Ryan Hogue; in case you don’t live here. I’m 50, a recent widower actively seeking a second heart attack. I intend to enjoy my chosen passage out of here.
I called my secret plan Death by Knife and Fork. I hadn’t been overly obvious, but my daughter Michelle guessed my strategy and papered Abernathy with red envelopes containing diet plans. Abernathy, Oregon, population 1950, had insufficient causes to maintain its quota of busybodies and had adopted Michelle’s program to save my life. Meddlers be damned—all of you.
Saturday night. I had a date for drinks and dinner with Bebe Whatcom, another widower—part of my master exit strategy. Bebe was a local celebrity—a retired pro football player gone to seed and drink. Lots of drink. We’d bonded last Thursday night when Shirley, a pissed off widow with a gun, had stampeded us from our first grief counseling session—more material for town gossip.
I met Bebe at Twain’s, the new restaurant atop the old library. Twain’s was short for Mark Twain—honoring the library’s history. I hadn’t had a haircut or shaved in the half-year since Janet died, but management let me in. Small town courtesy. I felt like a museum piece, part of the exhibit in the bookshelves filled with retired hardbound books. I anticipated a happy dinner with a new friend who hadn’t decided whether to live or die. Call us a two-man nonsupport group.
Janet would have loved the remodel. Don’t go there. You’re out on the town tonight. Keep your dragon chained. I felt release as I sat opposite Bebe. “The next time I visit here, I’ll bring Janet. She helped raise the restoration funds.”
Bebe pointed to the oversized fireplace. “There’s room for her on the mantle between Shakespeare and Socrates.”
“Thanks for the offer, but Janet stayed home tonight.”
“The hell I did, puppy love. I’m so happy, I could cry.”
Oh yeah, I had more problems than my diet. Invisible and heard only by me, my late wife had returned.
The waiter, a tuxedoed man around sixty, arrived holding his order pad. He hadn’t made the changeover to electronic devices. I liked him for that. “Good evening, gentlemen. Are you perchance thirsty or hungry?”
Bebe handed his menu to the man. “You’ve found the right table, guy. I’m starving. Ya hear me?”
“I do, sir.”
“Good. Gimme the Cheddar and bacon soup, the twenty-four-ounce sirloin served rare, a monster baker, and smother the whole shebang in gravy.”
“Bebe needs a daughter with a diet plan.” Janet and her opinion.
The waiter couldn’t hear Janet. “White or brown, sir?”
Bebe couldn’t hear her, either. “White on the potato and brown on the steak. And bring an order of potato skins.”
“Right away, sir.”
Bebe was killing himself—why not join the fun? Take the easy offered out.
I put down my menu. “Please disassemble your defibrillator.”
The waiter made a note. “May I ask why, sir?
Pour me some eighty-proof and feed me a hot meal. “We’ve decided to dine like there’s no tomorrow and check out in style.”
“Why don’t you be nice and order the beet salad?” Janet, warming up for the main event.
The waiter showed added life. “Oh, sir, you’ve found the right establishment.”
Jesus, this man believes me. What does Bebe think? I should unite with him.
“Bebe, aren’t you diabetic?”
Bebe drained his scotch and scowled at the glass’s bottom. “You misunderstood—I’m diabolic. I want a last meal and a full-bellied exit.”
Damn the IRS and Six-Gun Shirley. Burn the red envelope.
“You could check out with a double order of biscuits and gravy and a side of stewed prunes.”
Bebe scratched an armpit. “I said, check out, not blow out.”
The waiter addressed me. “For your dinner, sir?”
“About your defibrillator?”
The waiter frowned. “If you insist, sir.”
“Does the beast work?”
He scanned the room. “We’re not positive, sir.”
“Then why have it?”
“Good question.” Janet, my personal eavesdropper.
Sweat formed on the waiter’s bald pate. “We bought the defibrillator because of our master chef’s history.”
Bebe signaled a touchdown. “This is the right place for us.”
I added an immodest suggestion. “Name the defibrillator after us if either has the big one between courses.”
Bebe waved to the cocktail waitress but spoke to the waiter. “Do you know how to use the defib?”
“We have a programmed user’s manual.”
My hands shook. “You plan to read the manual while you jumpstart someone between the liver pâté and soup?”
The waiter turned his attention to me. “No, sir, we’re assured the program will talk us through the process in up to ten languages.”
I wonder if I could find someone to delete the English option. Improve my chances.
“You think too much.” Janet was critical of my idea.
A busboy offered a tray of deviled eggs. Bebe and I snatched six each. The waiter rotated to me from the busboy. “Your wishes, sir?”
Lead off with the big lie and someone might overhear and say nice things—no matter how untrue. “I’ve decided to eat healthy.”
“No fucking way.” Bebe swallowed a deviled egg whole.
“Bebe’s no dummy.” Janet, my primary do-gooder.
I began my order. “I’ll warm up with the oyster shooters. They’re low fat.”
“Excellent choice, sir.”
“Bring three dozen.”
“Right on.” Bebe waved his empty shot glass. The cocktail waitress delivered a full one.
“Bring two orders of your all-organic bacon-cheese balls.”
Bebe raised both arms. “Touchdown.”
“Can I barf now?” Janet, my culinary critic.
Can you smell ghost-barf?
I salivated, bouncing in anticipation, worse than a dog. This meal was going to be wonderful. “Bring the short ribs braised with bourbon sauce. Add a side of Brussels sprouts to make a low-cal feast.”
The waiter wrote my order. “I should bring the check before serving in case neither of you survive the appetizers.”
Bebe smiled. Smiles had been rare for us. “Name the appetizers after us if that happens.”
The waiter lowered his pad. “Will that be all, gentlemen?”
“I’m sure you can think of something stupid, oh garbage gut.” Janet sounded snarky.
I wasn’t done. “For dessert, I’ll have the key lime pie and the bread pudding. Do they come with ice cream?”
“They will for you, sir.”
Bebe pantomimed biting off the end of a cigar and lighting it. “Don’t forget Havanas.”
And remember to make my reservation on the Cardiac Express.
The waiter spoke without a trace of humor. “You made a good run, Mr. Hogue. May I have the red envelope?”
What the hell? Try denial. Disavowal works for most people. “What envelope?”
The waiter held out his hand. “The envelope under your placemat, sir.”
“Are you psychic? I didn’t put one there.” I hadn’t.
“I know you didn’t, sir. I am following orders.”
I lifted the placemat. An envelope waited, garishly red, ghastly red, and deadly red with intent. I handed the passive weapon over. Some nearby lady applauded. “That’s all? Don’t I get a choice of soup or salad or how I want my ribs cooked?”
Janet spoke from beside Shakespeare. “Thou’rt outnumbered, oyster-breath.”
My express had been derailed. Having a town come together for a project is beautiful—unless I’m the project. I should have some rights. This is like the Advanced Directive I filled out as to whether I wanted to be kept alive by machinery. My life without Janet was as pointless as having one forced on me by a breathing machine. Let me go. And allow me to choose the vehicle. Is anyone listening?
“Only me, and you know what that’s worth.” Janet, not helping.
The waiter cradled the envelope to his chest. “I want to help, sir, but an army has sworn service to saving your life.”
A small town up to no good. “An army? You’re a soldier in the battalion?”
“Allow me to say, sir, I was drafted.”
“Armies have officers. Do you have a commission?”
The waiter tucked the envelope in his apron. “No, sir, my wife outranks me.”
“As she should.” Janet, sounding amicably smug.
Bebe hoisted his drink. “Don’t they all.”
I requested a stay of execution. “Can you postpone the war while I enjoy a last meal?”
“Sir, I bleed for you but I cannot.”
Damn—Michelle had a running start. “Commandant Michelle has our town covered like a coffin at the cemetery.”
“You are correct, sir.”
“I’m a man without hope adrift on an ocean of nutrition and estrogen.”
“Succinctly put, sir.”
“Stop whining. You’re upsetting my stomach.” Janet didn’t like my summation.
Bebe butted in. “Relax, I got this one. Ya hear me?”
The waiter started for the kitchen but Bebe bellowed, “Stop right thar, varmint.” His voice was hoarse, but his message carried.
The waiter’s head swiveled. “Sir?”
Bebe gestured to me. “New mission. Bring me my original order plus my friend’s.”
The waiter didn’t hesitate. “Of course, sir.”
Salvation. “Will this action keep you out of court-martial?”
“I’d be honored to stand blindfolded in your stead if our evasion fails.”
The waiter left. Bebe and I leaned in, searching for solace. The waitress brought me a foul-smelling brown blend. I sniffed. “What are the rules about Tabasco?”
She pulled a bottle from her pocket. “None yet, Mr. Hogue.”
“Is this contraband?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir.”
“I should yell at you for behaving like an ass.” Janet, my spiritual guide.
The waitress hurried off. Bebe and I lifted our glasses in a toast. A woman in an evening dress left her escort and hurried to our table, putting her hand on Bebe’s shoulder. “Are you Bebe Whatcom?”
Bebe put down his drink. “Yes, ma’am.”
She hugged his head to her bosom. “I’m Doris Porter. I was Valerie’s hairdresser since forever. I hear so many stories about my clients’ awful men, and I want you to know Valerie loved you.” She kissed Bebe’s forehead and rejoined her escort.
I offered condolences. “Too bad she’s married.”
“Yeah, I could get haircuts at home.”
“You could use a trim, sweetie. You look like a grizzly bear.” Janet, ever finnicky.
Ignore Janet and talk to Bebe.
“Ignore me at your peril, Sir Wildebeest.”
“What should I do about Michelle?”
Bebe volunteered a dangerous program. “Your daughter needs a boyfriend—preferably a bad boy with problems to fix.”
My daughter needed a boyfriend? She wasn’t alone in the category. Bebe’s sisters-in-law had become venomous. “So do Valerie’s sisters.”
Pragmatic Bebe knew what to do. “Let’s find a stud for all three.”
I blew liquid veggies and hot sauce out my nose. A camera flashed somewhere. Bebe took a belt from his scotch while I cleaned up and gulped brown brew.
Jesus. I hope I don’t learn to like this shit.
My head hopscotched across lanes of logic. Six-Gun Shirley surfaced. “Shirley might have been bluffing. Maybe Waldo wasn’t loaded.”
“A woman who names her gun Waldo might have other habits.”
“I don’t want to know.”
I want to die fat and happy—but without bullet holes.
Bebe found humor in my distress. “Shirley changed her mind and thinks you’re cute. I could use you as bait.”
The brew was confusing me. “What the hell for?”
“A family sharpshooter could provide a low-fat game diet.”
“You’d get bored quickly.” A familiar voice—Pamela, the leader from our recently evacuated grief counseling session.
Hoo, Boy. Am I wearing a clean shirt?
Bebe and I stood.
Pamela was dressed in a black sheath accented by pearl earrings, necklace, and bracelet. A coat over one arm, she had either just arrived or was leaving. I reverted to my tongue-tied high school persona. I noted the lady preferred pearls and filed the information. She appeared to be without an escort.
A babe—a babe over 45.
“What’s this? You think you have a chance with a society lady?” Janet, supportively negative.
Just as much as I had with you.
Bebe and the scotch carried the conversation. “Pamela, please join us.”
“Thank you, no. I’m leaving, but I’ve loved watching you two raise the room’s energy.”
Is she married?”
“Why? Aren’t you planning to die?” Janet, punching holes in me.
Yes, I am. No, not yet. Dammit woman, don’t try to reason with a man whose brain-blood has gone south.
I changed direction. “Is Shirley going to be a problem?”
Bebe had his own qualms. “Do we need to join the Navy?”
“You’re too old for military service, men. Shirley’s taking time off to deal with Floyd’s passing and then going on a survival hike.”
I wasn’t through. “And when she gets back?”
Pamela looked squarely at me. “Shirley’s confused. She’ll cool down, although she does have a fixation on your beard.”
Janet retained her jab. “See, honey, you attract the wild side.”
Pamela’s purse beeped. “My ride’s here. Will I see you Thursday?”
Bebe and I shared a moment of introspection before I answered. “Shirley makes us nervous. We’ll pass, but thanks for asking.”
“While I have you, I want to drop a reminder about the Abernathy Ball in two weeks. You’ll support a good cause.”
“Hear that, sweetheart? Two weeks and counting. Whatever shall I wear?” No reminder needed. I had Janet. She and I had never missed the ball.
Pamela left, and we sat. The waiter’s runners brought potato skins, cheeses, meatballs, and celery sticks.
Bebe wolfed a potato skin. “I can see you and Shirley loving by a campfire while toasting a squirrel.”
“Hee, hee, hee.” Echoing laughter from over the rainbow.
“You have strange visions.”
He pointed at my celery. “I’d take anything over your rabbit food.”
“Celery isn’t my only problem.”
Onion ring crumbs dribbled off Bebe’s chin. “That’s a fact. We’re both in deep shit.”
“We’re new widowers. People are afraid to talk to us.”
“Are they afraid of hurting us?”
I tried an onion ring—damned good. “Nope. Most only want to boss us around.”
“Like Michelle? And Valerie’s sisters?”
I stuffed two meatballs in my mouth and imbibed more of the brown crap. Yummy. “What can we do? We’re surrounded.”
“We’re at war. We need to play with our troublemakers’ heads.”
“Michelle will believe anything bad about me as long as I wasn’t the information source. The worse the news, the more plausible.”
The scotch was curing Bebe’s vocal squeak. “We need to push Michelle and the sisters off balance.”
I lined four cheese cubes on a celery stick. “I’ve already started.”
Bebe slurred his words. “Did ya leave Janet’s urn in the tub wid a rubber ducky an’ a bar o’ soap?”
“Great idea, linebacker. Add a glass of wine and some chick lit.” Janet fleshed out Bebe’s idea.
I hit the veggie juice again. My colon was going to raise hell. “Michelle would stash me in a rubber room before sundown.”
“The rubber room is quiet, and they’ll feed us.”
“I could leave Janet by an open recipe book, but Michelle would see through me. I used to cook, but now I forget to turn off the burners.”
Bebe pursued his line. “You said you’d started already. How, exactly did you screw with Michelle’s head?”
“I left a pair of unwashed panties beneath my bed where she’s not supposed to snoop.”
“Did you leave an edge out for her to spot?”
“Too obvious. I wanted authenticity. She’ll have to crawl under the bed. I slid them behind the hedge trimmer.”
“Classy.” Janet liked the idea. I could tell.
The waiter’s team arrived with the main courses. Bebe pushed the ribs my way. “Have a woman with a voice not known to Michelle record your voicemail message.”
Bebe’s brain was as devious as mine used to be. “Good one. I’ll do it.”
“You’re showing life, honey. I married you for your designing ways.”
Bebe carved a bloody chunk of meat. “Holly and Louise would scream murder if I did the same.”
I bit into a rib. The grease blazed a trail straight to my heart. Yummy.
The waiter brought me a brown refill. “Try a sip, sir. I adjusted the formula.”
I tasted ethanol and nodded approval to the waiter. My (asshole/backend) was going to flame out.
“Enjoy your last meal, sir.” The waiter left.
Gawd, I hope so.
“Your rectum is going to call in sick.” Janet didn’t think much of my choices.
Bebe spilled gravy onto his shirt. “We need girlfriends.”
“Michelle said women are forbidden territory.”
“Forbidden territory, my aching ass. Marriage is a contract until one of us dies. I learned that the hard way when my first wife Marcy died. You with Janet, and Valerie with me—we went the distance. Ya hear me?”
“That’s true, sweetums, so true. I’m happy for us.” Janet sounded like she was smiling.
After we ate, I pushed back from the table. “Bebe, I’ve enjoyed dinner. We have thinking to do.”
“What, you’ve decided not to die?” A voice from beyond.
Don’t push me, babe. Right now I don’t know what I want.
Bebe rolled his Havana in his palms. “Little issues like life or death?”
The waiter presented the check. “If I might intrude, sir, I know of a lady downstate called The Black Widow who can end your diet misery.”
My colon backfired. “What?”
“The legend says she arrives all in black, carrying your last casserole.”
“Does her recipe contain a few calories and some fat?” My big question.
Bebe threw in support. “Something has to change. I’ve been cooking dinner in my driveway on my tailgate. Please find Ms. Widow’s number just in case.”
I resided on an unstable platform, the times changing with every minute. My semi–death wish had semi-surfaced, then drowned. Pamela’s image lingered.
Janet had her solution. “Give up, brisket-breath, and LIVE.”
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.