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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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Bookselling by phone is hard, but the Soupster kept his 3 Down to the grindstone. After a few of the tougher calls to reluctant customers in regions far away, the Soupster rewarded himself by calling one of the villages near Our Town. He loved the familiar way everyone spoke.
And to 26 Down that, he was dialing his phone just now.
The world is made up of fractals, the Soupster believed, that patterns in nature repeat and that a coastline viewed from 29 Across has the same types of ins and outs as a section of coast viewed from an airplane. It’s the same patterns you’d see if you’re standing on a 33 Across looking down on the rocky shore.
Big city, Our Town, villages – the same patterns of life and people, just on a larger and smaller scale. 22 Across Town is to the village what the big city is to Our Town.
“Hello?” said a male voice.
“Hi!” said the Soupster and launched into his sales pitch.
As the Soupster described the plot of the book and its artwork, the male voice chuckled and snorted at all the right places. This made the Soupster optimistic and he launched even greater feats of salesmanship.
“Sounds wonderful,” said the voice at the village store. “I’m sure your book will fly 4 Down the door here.”
“Then you’d like to order some copies?” asked the Soupster.
“Oh, for that, you’ll have to talk somebody who works here,” said the voice.
“Who are you?” the Soupster asked.
“I’m just a customer,” said the voice. “The owner had to run home and she asked me to answer the phone.”
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“When was the last time you saw the Northern Lights over Our Town?” the Soupster asked his friend Rudy, as the two men reclined on the porch at the back of Rudy’s house. Rudy was a high school science teacher and an observant man, and the Soupster valued his opinion.
“Seems to me like a long while ago,” Rudy agreed.
The angle of the yard gave the two men a good view of the night sky. Passing clouds exposed a few isolated stars now and then as they talked.
“Maybe four or five years since one of those real light shows that have you muttering `I can’t believe what I’m seeing,’” said the Soupster. “And the next day everybody is talking about the Northern Lights wherever you go.”
“If people did not see the Northern Lights, then you have to explain what you were doing up in the middle of the night,” Rudy laughed.
“This is true,” said the Soupster.
“You know what the police say,” Rudy quoted. “Anybody up at 3 a.m. is probably up to no good.”
“This is also true.”
“I was busted by my kid,” said Rudy. “I woke her up early one morning for her to see a really good Northern Lights. She said she was cold and she never fully woke up. Her mother complained big-time and said, `What kind of father are you?”
“Wow,” said the Soupster,
“So the next time, we had Northern Lights I didn’t wake her up and she was mad and said `Why didn’t you wake me up?’”
The Soupster laughed and sank down deeper into padded chaise.
“There’s the Wet Alaska and the Cold Alaska,” the Soupster said. “In Cold Alaska, they see the Northern Lights regularly.”
“My experience,” said Rudy “is that Wet Alaska may not be colder than Cold Alaska, but it can feel colder. I saw a college kid in Fairbanks in shorts at a dry 20 below and I bet he would not do that here on a windblown night of freezing rain.”
“It’s not unusual for a West Coast state to have two completely different climate zones,” said the Soupster. “There’s wet western Washington and western Oregon, each state turning drier and hotter as you go east.”
“And California, like Alaska is split more North and South, of course,” the Soupster said. “Deserts down South and forests up North.”
“The opposite of here,” said Rudy. “Great swaths of Interior Alaska get so little precipitation the area qualifies as a desert. Then we have this huge temperate rain forest here in the South.”
“You’re a smart guy,” said the Soupster.
“As long as you do not count the mistakes,” said Rudy.
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Originally published November 6, 2003
“I was saved, Soupster, but by which I do not know,” said Charles, a former college professor who now drank a lot of coffee. He had four tiny espresso cups arranged in front of him, two of them empty.
The Soupster looked around. Besides the barrista, washing mugs out of earshot, the men were alone.
“You know Bluto, the pompous blowhard?” Charles said, blowing pretty hard himself. “I owed that man $1,000. You’d have thought it was the Hope Diamond the way he pursued me around Our Town. Showing up at social occasions with that ridiculous `I’m going to bite you’ look on his face.”
“Bluto has bitten people,” the Soupster remarked. “He almost bit me once.”
“I considered that,” said Charles.
“Anyhow,” he continued. “Bluto was on my tail in a major fashion and I was doing my best to stay one step ahead of him. Which is not hard, Bluto being Bluto.”
“He’s not stupid,” said the Soupster
“Nonetheless,” said Charles. “On a proverbial `dark and stormy night’ he finally caught up with me. Right outside the fishing supply store. There I was face-to-face with Bluto’s ugly visage. He held a bag, bulging with orange nylon and I thought he was going to brain me with it.”
Charles chugged the third of his espressos.
“Bluto grabs me with his giant paws and squeezes hard,” Charles continued. “`Where is me $1,000, you barrel worm,’ Bluto thunders. `I don’t have it,’ I say weakly. `What’s that in your pocket?’ says Bluto. `That’s me, er, my mail,’ I say.”
“So Bluto grabs the mail and rifles through. `Ahoy,’ he cries, holding up my Permanent Fund Dividend check. `This will do,’ Bluto says.
“`But, Bluto,’ I muster the courage to ask ‘I owe you a $1,000, but that PFD is worth more than $1,100,’ I say. And Bluto, he agrees with me. Could have knocked me over with a feather. `An eleven hundred dollar PFD,’ the ogre says and laughs and thrusts his bulging orange bag into my chest.”
“And walks off,” Charles continued. “So I’m left there standing in the pitch-black cold rain, minus one PFD. I stare into the bag. And what is in there? A life vest! I take it out and put it on. It’s a nice life jacket, the kind with the big ring behind your neck and the large reflective patches on the shoulder so the Coast Guard can find you at night and pluck you out of the water.”
“And as I’m admiring the jacket a car comes screeching out of the dark. And – this I swear – the car’s headlights pick up the reflective patches and the vehicle veers a second before running me down.”
“I see your dilemna,” said the Soupster. “You were saved by either a Permanent Fund Dividend or a Personal Flotation Device.”
“Yes, Soupster, yes,” Charles cried, lurching for his remaining coffee cup. “Which PFD saved me?
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