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The Soupster’s head throbbed as he tried to remember what it was he had just been thinking about. He was walking down Lincoln Street, happy with himself and his thought, when it took flight. “I hate when that happens,” the Soupster said, quoting television.
Crossing the street ahead of the Soupster, coming at him from the opposite direction, a young man and woman held hands as they walked..With his free hand, the man pushed a baby carriage and the care he took with the little chariot indicated that the low-slung seat was occupied.
In the shadows, the Soupster couldn’t make out who they were. Just another fresh-faced couple trying to find shelter and employment when the old fogies like himself already owned everything, he thought. But that wasn’t what he was trying to remember.
“Soupster!” the man called out and the Soupster knew immediately who he was. Like nails on a chalkboard, amplifier feedback, hyena screams and removing rusted lug nuts, the tenor of this man’s voice carved the listener a new gullet. The Soupster already had a gullet, but he had no choice but to answer back.
“Gene!” the Soupster said.
Gene’s voice was famous in Our Town, he was kind of a local Gilbert Gottfried, the voice of the AFLAC duck. But he was the duck with a megaphone – Gene’s voice was grating hearty and LOUD. Gene once told the Soupster that in all his hours on the water, he had seldom seen any marine mammals. With the sensitivity of the great beasts’ hearing, the fact seemed to the Soupster to make sense.
But when Gene came into view, the Soupster experienced the man’s other distinctive feature – he was easily the best-looking guy in Our Town. He was handsome in a way that made other men want to work for him or have him on their team. What Gene made women think and feel, the Soupster knew he could not grasp.
Gene was with his wife Audriella, as they were inseparable. Audriella was as acutely homely as her handsome husband was spectacularly not. Many in Our Town asked “what had made this striking man choose this unmemorable woman? Then, she opened her mouth and people knew. There was her charisma and obvious intelligence, of course. But there was also her voice. What a voice! In it was the song of birds, the rich sweetness of honey, the promise of the sky.
“Soupster!” Audriella called out with her lovely instrument.
The Soupster could see their faces clearly now. The Soupster knew his own face and voice were good enough for government work — mid-range compared to these two on either extreme. He wondered, which would it be better to be? Great-looking and sounding like a wounded goose? Or the plain-faced owner of angelic pipes?
“Come see Katey,” Audriella said, as Gene smiled, and with that voice and that smile the Soupster could not refuse. Ahead, the Soupster could see the blanketed bundle in the stroller squirming. Which parent would be baby take after?
Audriella pulled the blanket aside, revealing the most beautiful baby the Soupster had ever seen. Little Katey opened her mouth and the Soupster stiffened, expecting the worst. But the child’s voice was pure music.
That’s what I was trying to remember! the Soupster thought. That sometimes it just all works out in the end.
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“Coffee delivery,” the Soupster announced, as he approached the four men sitting and standing outside Giant Gene’s auto shop. Indeed, he carried a cardboard holder with four paper cups.
“You’re a good man,” Giant Gene told the Soupster, taking the holder and distributing the cups. Charlie, also called Red, raised his in salute. Billy, called Kid, gave an elaborate bow of thanks, almost spilling his. Miguel drank greedily. He was, understandably, sometimes called Santana, since that was his last name.
“Pretty slick,” the Soupster told Gene. “I call you to see if my alternator is ready and you rope me into catering your morning staff meeting. What are you guys doing standing out here, anyway? Don’t you have cars and trucks to shorten the lives of?”
“Shhhh,” said Gene and turned to the other guys. “I think today is definitely the day. It’s my day.”
“Today is what day?” asked the Soupster.
“The day Gene thinks Leonard will finally take his snow shovels inside,” said Red. He pointed across the street to a neatly kept home surrounded by a white picket fence, against which was balanced a silver snow shovel, a black plastic scoop and an ice breaker.
“We think Leonard is the last person in Our Town to put them away,” added Billy.
“We bet on it,” said Giant Gene. “Miguel thought it up.”
“Whoever picks the day Leonard puts the shovels away has to buy lunch for the rest of us for a week,” explained Miguel.
“That’s the first prize?” said the Soupster. “The winner buys lunch for everyone for a week?”
“No,” said Miguel. “The prize is the honor of winning.”
“We call it the Santana Ice Classic,” said Giant Gene.
“Look,” said Billy, “Leonard’s coming out!”
Leonard stepped out onto his cute front porch and took a breath of the morning air. He came down the stairs. The tension at Giant Gene’s was palpable.
When Leonard got to the shovels he paused slightly, looked up in the general direction of Giant Gene’s, walked out the gate and got into his car.
“Darn!” said Gene. “I thought I won!”
“It’s been getting pretty warm,” the Soupster said. “Do you ever worry that Leonard knows what you’re all up to and he’s leaving his shovels out there on purpose?”
“Soupster,” said Billy. “That would be crazy!”
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“Morning, Sunshine!” I greet the Soupster as he slides into the passenger seat.
“Uh-huh,” he replies groggily. Accepting my offer of liquid incentive, he adds, “Quad shot creamy, dreamy choco-caffeine delight, my favorite. Thanks.”
The Soupster adjusts his sunglasses to the morning sun. At 8am on this Saturday it’s the offer of my gardening genius and willingness at his disposal that helps him brave the hour.
“I know it’s early. Be glad I didn’t try dragging you out earlier! Garage sale-ing is serious business in Our Town – you don’t even know!” I laugh and pull out of the drive.
“First stop – across town. The hunt for garden treasures begins. It’s springtime for the Soupster in Our Town…” I belt out, energized by the sun.
“Springtime in Our Town – herring return, citywide spring cleanup, sunshine….”
“If we’re lucky,” I interject.
“Which apparently we are. Remember the good old days of roadside spring cleanup?” the Soupster asks.
“Afraid not. How’d that work?”
“Folks would toss their junk onto the side of the street. And I mean in a BIG way. Anything and everything you can imagine. Gardening supplies, even! Stuff that people didn’t want to haul off away themselves. For a weekend, crews would work like mad hauling all this stuff away. And as they worked their way around town, others did the same, keeping ahead of the crews to salvage what was usable.”
“Wow! Nobody appreciates the value of thriftiness like folks in Our Town. There are so many ways for goods to come and go around here – the White E, radio stations, the newspaper, online venues, the Soup,” My list ends with a swish of the wrist, deferring to my friend.
The Soupster jumps in. “Word of mouth! Friends. Friends of friends. Anyone who learns you need what they’re lookin’ to unload.”
“Once I was walking my baby downtown and an absolute stranger chased us down. She had a fancy Italian stroller she used when she nannied. Not only did she hook me up, she delivered it. Even our strangers can be most generous!” I chuckle.
“How we find what we need in Our Town is pretty remarkable. Hey,” he says, pointing to a green truck at the side of the road. “It’s Tony.”
We pull over to find Tony’s truck almost overflowing – an old canoe, tires, a cracked bird bath, a trellis, a bulky mass of seine net.
“Please tell us you’re heading to the dump this fine morning, Tony,” I jibe, eyeballing the treasure trove of garden possibilities resting in his truck bed.
“Yup. Y’all don’t happen to need any of this, do ya?” Tony asks. The Soupster and I look at each other and smile.
“We sure do! Follow us.”
Hopping back in the car, I pull a U turn with Tony close behind. I have to laugh, “Pretty remarkable, indeed. SCORE!”
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“Soupster, are you crying?” asked Laine as she encountered him on a bench near the harbor.
“Oh, just deep thoughts,” the Soupster admitted, wiping his cheek with the side of his hand. “I was just thinking about Clarence… and novels.”
“OK,” Laine said, sitting down. “I’ve got a minute. Tell me what’s on the Soupster’s mind. This can be like in one of your Our Town columns.”
Some gulls squawked at her joke, but the Soupster didn’t.
“Good old Clarence,” said the Soupster. “I was giving him a bad time about some old snow shovel he borrowed and gave me back bent – this was just last week.”
“Now, he’s gone,” said Laine.
“Clarence, The Novel, is finished,” the Soupster agreed.
“Explain,” said Laine.
“A great thing about Our Town, maybe the best thing about it for me,” said the Soupster, “is the fact you get to see the same people in all different kinds of ways. You might see them with their kids at a concert and then where they work and then maybe leading around a group of people who look just like them and you figure they must be relatives.
“All these same people, like Clarence, develop in front of you, like characters in a novel,” he concluded.
“Clarence, The Novel, is finished,” said Laine, nodding with understanding. She and the Soupster let a long pause occur, respectful of their friend’s passing.
“We only get to know part of the story,” said the Soupster. “I only knew Clarence, The Novel from the middle to the end. I never `read’ the beginning.”
“If it was anything like the later parts, it had to be a good read,” chuckled Laine, toasting Clarence with an imaginary drink in one hand.
“Seeing kids grow up in Our Town is cool,” said the Soupster, “That’s the beginning of the novel.”
“You know, you may never read the end of those novels,” she said. “You probably won’t.”
“That’s okay,” said the Soupster. “I’ve always liked the beginnings of novels best. I love the first 10 minutes of every movie I see.”
“Well, if this is an episode of Our Town, we must be near the bottom of the page,” said Laine. “Because I have to go.” She stood and walked a few steps, then turned and smiled.
“And so Laine, The Novel, continues,” she called back. “But this chapter is finished.”
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My wife says I bring home too many chums. But I never give her anything but coho, king and abalone. I have informed all of the 15 or 20 of my closest friends who I constantly invite over for dinner to do the same. They always comply. Yet my wife still complains.
Popular Everywhere But at Home
Tell your wife you want to get a dog. This will spark a long discussion that should lead to the resolution of your problem. Remember: Men are dogs, but male and female chums are both dogs.
Last Wednesday, I put a small hook on my line and moved my fishing pole up and down in the harbor in order to catch smelt. The assistant harbormaster commented that I smelt. Is smelt a noun or an adjective?
Getting Jiggy With It
Depends on the assistant harbormaster.
I just moved here from the big city to do big time legal work for the big bucks. I wear a three-piece suit, an expensive haircut and a very expensive watch. Yet, every time I give a client my business card they start laughing and speaking gibberish. Goo-goo or some nonsense. What’s with this town?
You need to spell out your first name. The present configuration of your first and surname suggests, in local parlance, a large Pacific clam with an unfortunate shape, albeit paired with a palatability surprisingly refined. That will be $150.
My girlfriend says I never listen to her. She insists I am hard of hearing. The truth is that I have been slipping a small silver fish into each of my ears lately, which I have found improves our relationship. Should I tell her she I am actually hard of herring? Please answer in writing.
Seine Better Days
I really don’t know how to advise about you and your girlfriend, but I would watch the calendar. You definitely want to get the fish out your ears before they spawn.
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Originally Published March 6, 2003
The grocery store was packed. The Soupster had to walk sideways down the Canned Tomatoes aisle to pass the shopping carts parked on the left side and then the right. Unusual for Our Town, a long line of shoppers waited impatiently at the checkout stand.
When the Soupster finally got to the front of the line, he saw the reason for the delay. The young woman at the cash register was as overcareful with each transaction as a cat pacing the rim of a steamy bathtub.
She meticulously rotated each food item in her hand to find the UPC code, and then drew the item across the scanner with a kind of dreamy slowness. She smiled individually at each person in line, looking for validation, then, with effort, picked up the next food item. The Soupster shifted his weight from one foot to the other. So did everyone in the line steadily growing behind the Soupster.
People had started to clear their throats, when a man in his 30’s with a badge that said “Asst. Mgr.” swept up behind the counter next to the cashier.
“Kathy! You are to call for help when the line gets this long,” he said in a theatrical whisper, meant for everyone to hear. “You should never let the line get this long, Kathy!”
“Ma’am,” the Asst. Mgr. said over-solicitously to the woman behind the Soupster. “All of you, come with me,” he pointed to the entire line and they moved with him to another checkout stand.
The young cashier’s face reddened. Only halfway through his transaction, the Soupster stood alone now before her. She went back to her slow-motion scanning of the Soupster’s few items. Meanwhile, the first members of the Asst. Mgr.’s line were already picking up their grocery bags and walking out the door.
“Sorry,” the Kathy said, looking downcast.
“No problem,” said the Soupster. “First day on the job?”
She nodded. “Probably going to be my only day,” she said and, indeed, the Asst. Mgr. was shooting daggers her way hidden behind the bland smile he showed his customers.
“Keep at it,” said the Soupster.
“I said DON’T RUSH ME!” came a loud, deep voice from the other register. The Soupster and the young cashier turned.
A very large man loomed over the Asst. Mgr., who was pinned against the back wall of his checkout station. The man slammed down his wallet and leaned forward in the direction of the Asst. Mgr. who looked extremely flustered and ready to bolt.
“Manny,” said Kathy, the young cashier, and slipped from her workstation seamlessly beside her trembling co-worker. “Manny, Manny, Many, cool your jets,” she laughed and poked the big man in the chest. Manny laughed. The Asst.. Mgr. visibly unstiffened.
The cashier returned to the Soupster. She looked a lot happier than a minute before. “Will there be anything else, Sir?” she asked sweetly.
“I think you got your job back, Kathy,” the Soupster answered.
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At the hardware store at closing time to buy a paintbrush, the Soupster said the same thing he always said when he ran into the local vampire, “Hey, Ed, drinking that fish blood still working for you?”
“Fine,” said Edward, who was not hearing the question for the first time. “Hey Soupster,” he countered, “you still eating the flesh of mammals?”
“Not the same, not the same,” said the Soupster, shaking his head.
“That’s right,” said Ed. “I catch my own dinner.”
“All right, you win,” said the Soupster, noticing that Ed’s arms were filled with plumbing parts, building insulation and a large roll of electrical wire and that he wore a serious expression.
The Soupster could hear the background whirring of the cash register at the counter. Customers stood in line to check out. A few other people wandered the aisles, glancing anxiously at the big wall clock.
“Sorry if I seem testy,” said Ed, “I’ve just been vorking, vorking, vorking.” At the Soupster’s questioning look, Ed added. “You know, I’m coming to the end of my busy season.”
“That’s right, you live at night,” the Soupster said, acting as though he didn’t already know that.
“And the nights are getting shorter,” said Ed.
“I have noticed that,” said the Soupster. “I actually tell people during the black nights of late fall that they just have to hold out until February and it’s remarkably lighter by then…Eddy? Are you listening to me?”
“I vas just thinking about the ‘black nights of late fall,’” said Ed dreamily. “You ewoked that magical time wery vell.”
“I know it’s not officially Spring until March 21st,” the Soupster continued, “but it seems like it’s Spring here by the end of February. At least it’s staying light later and later and getting light earlier and earlier.”
“Please don’t vave your depressing theory in my face,” said Ed.
“Which makes sense,” said the Soupster, ignoring him, “because Fall starts on September 21st, supposedly, but in our town — by late August — the alder leaves are falling and the raindrops getting bigger.”
“I have so much to do and so little time to do it,” Ed complained. “And so no time to talk vit you.”
“I’ll try and keep a good thought for you night people,” said the Soupster.
Ed nodded assent. “In the vords of Paul Simon, `One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.’”
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“There is nothing like warm friends, cozy food and a good house,” thought the Soupster as he prepared to bid goodbye and step outside into the competing storm fronts buffeting Our Town from one end to the other.
Leon and his brother Russell threw a great party, but the Soupster had an early date with a daunting list of chores, so before it got too late, he’d better get cracking. He said farewell to his hosts as well as Suzi and Lynn and Phoebe and Rowan and Sue-Ann and Glenn and a bunch of other people he knew even less well.
The Soupster had a little trouble extricating his coat from the tall pile draped on the stairs. He waved a final farewell to his buddies and stepped onto the cold floor of the mudroom to retrieve his XtraTuf boots.
And therein lay the rub(ber)! There were about 20 pairs of boots in the mudroom, every single one of them, XtraTufs. Which set was his?
Only a few pairs were decidedly too big or too small. A few pairs were older and their shine had faded and one had a bad scuff on the toe. But most looked like they would fit the Soupster. For the life of him, the Soupster could not tell his boots from the others.
So the Soupster made the best choice he could. The pair he chose looked to be about the right level of worn. He slipped them on and they fit. He went out the door and into the near gale.
The Soupster pulled his head into his coat collar, like a turtle, against the weather’s onslaught. Did the boots feel a little tight? The Soupster felt himself lurch forward as he slipped on a rock and twisted his ankle slightly. Then he felt someone grab his arm.
“Soupster,” said Rowan, who had come running out of Leon’s house after him. “You’ve got my boots!” The weather was too foul to discuss the matter outside, so the Soupster followed Rowan back into Leon’s mudroom. Rowan showed the Soupster the small image of a sailboat Rowan had inked into the inside tops of the pair to show they were his. He sympathized with the Soupster, but then said “artichoke dip” and disappeared back into the party.
The Soupster was embarrassed. He wanted to get out of that mudroom before anyone saw he had to come back and ask why. He found a left boot that he was sure was his and it fit perfectly. Then, he heard the voices of people rising and getting closer. He hurriedly grabbed the boot next to the left one and, hopping on one leg, quickly pulled the second boot on and headed out the door.
The Soupster’s right ankle felt terrible – he must have really strained it earlier. He hobbled down the front steps and limped toward the street. Again his head made its turtle move into his coat. And again, he felt someone pulling his arm.
“Soupster!” said Rowan, forced to shout over the wind. “I think you’ve made another mistake with the boots.”
“I know the one boot doesn’t feel right,” the Soupster said, “but that’s because I slipped before.”
“That’s not it,” shouted Rowan. “Look down! You’ve got two left boots on!”
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