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The Soupster encounters and old friend.
Submitted by Lois Verbaan
The Soupster panted as he climbed the stairway up the mountain. Beads of sweat formed on his brow. Apart from a squirrel which scampered up a tree, he was alone. Or so he thought. But, as he climbed the last flight of stairs, a person came into view, leaning on the guard rail and gazing into the distance.
“Rusty?? Is that you??” the Soupster asked, suddenly remembering his missed eye doctor appointment.
“‘Fraid so,” the old fisher replied, as she stared at the islands. “Seen a lot in my day,” she sighed. “Wispy clouds in a blue morning sky, a troller plying a glassy sea, a hazy horizon blurring snow-capped mountains, wind chopping up dark water, a cat streaking across the road to take refuge in shadows.”
“Rusty! What on earth??” the Soupster said. “You okay?”
“Sure,” she said, “just contemplating the passing of time. When you gotta turn back at the lookout, you realize you aren’t a spring Bambi anymore,” she admitted, rubbing her knees. “To tell the truth, summer’s taking its toll. Too much daylight and too much to do.”
“Aah, friend,” Rusty continued. “‘How small the boat for each life, how vast the ocean and its storms; May sunlight touch the waves, may strong wind take your sails…’ Know any ‘a those, Soupster?”
“Can’t say I do,” the Soupster mumbled, munching a handful of trail mix.
“Well, probably ‘cause I made ‘em all up,” Rusty laughed. “Anyway, how’s your summer going?”
“Productive,” the Soupster said. “I’m getting through my ‘Indoor To-Do List.’ Last week I sorted my garage cabinets into cutting things, hitting things and measuring things.”
“Wow, impressive!” Rusty said. “I count myself lucky if I can find anything clean on the boat to put on every morning. Anyhow, we have different priorities. Dry and warm is good enough for me.”
“Soupster, what I really want to know is how far we’ve hiked from the trailhead to here,” she said.
Pulling out his phone, the Soupster declared, “Siri! Pythagorean Theorem!”
“The square root of A-squared plus B-squared equals C-squared, Soupstah,” she replied.
“Australian accent,” the Soupster whispered to Rusty. “But that’s another story.”
“Impressive, Soupster, but you’re hurting my head – too early for this kind of mathematical genius.”
“That’s okay, Rusty, you’re good at other things. Take these, for example,” the Soupster said, examining her well-worn hiking poles, with glints of shiny metal between the mud. “These babies prove you’re a hardcore Alaska outdoorsperson.”
“Dunno,” Rusty said. “Always thought it was the shorts.”
“Got a point there, Rust,” the Soupster admitted. “Pretty hardcore how you wear shorts year-round. How do we know when the temperature has hit 40? When ol’ Rusty emerges from hibernation with shorts on.” Rusty chuckled.
A freezing gust of wind hit the hikers, bringing the first drops of that distant storm, and sending a shiver up Rusty’s legs. The two friends put on an extra layer, cinched up their backpacks and headed down the mountain.
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The Soupster talks to someone who can’t see the forest, because of one.
“No, Uncle Bob, I’m not aware,” said the Soupster into the receiver of his landline phone, “just how hot your weather is right now.”
That was an outright lie. In fact, the Soupster knew. He regularly enjoyed playing a weather game called “Too Hot!.” The game involved reading the list of daily temperatures in the newspaper or watching the highs and lows of major U.S. cities scroll by on television and stopping at each one 80 degrees or higher to think aloud “Too Hot!” Starting in the Spring, various cities would pass into the realm of “Too Hot!” until, by August, most of the country qualified. It seemed as though too many cities were getting “Too Hot!” too early in the year and staying simmering too late into the fall. The Soupster knew from his game that Uncle Bob’s area had been hitting triple digits all week – shattering records set in horse-and-buggy days.
“That sounds terrible, Uncle Bob,” the Soupster said to his mother’s brother’s description of clothing turning sweat-soaked in minutes, engines overheating on gridlocked streets, regional power outages making air conditioners and refrigerators useless.
Of all the things the Soupster loved about Our Town and knew he would miss the most, its mild summertime temperatures ranked tops. Our Town and neighboring villages were maybe the last places in the country where the Soupster could live without ever having taken his air conditioner out of the box – it sat in the back of the Soupster’s closet like a survivalist’s cache of water pouches, freeze-dried Stroganoff and space blankets.
“What’s that, Uncle Bob?” the Soupster asked, registering what his relative had just said. “Your car was stolen when?”
During the heat wave and power outage, Bob explained, making it infinitely more difficult for him and his wife to haul ice back to their house to try and save the food in the chest freezer. The lack of transportation made it impossible for the couple to go the lakefront or other cooler escapes. Their usual last resorts – the movie theaters and the International House of Pancakes — were dark because of the blackout. Police found Bob’s car finally – minus hubcaps and, oddly, head rests.
“Why doesn’t it matter anymore, Uncle Bob?” asked the Soupster. “What do you mean `Eminent Domain’?”
Uncle Bob said that he worried about a developer who wanted to build condos right where his neighborhood stood. Meant jobs and higher taxes for the city. In New Jersey, one city had condemned some people’s houses with exactly the same outcome in mind and the U.S. Supreme Court backed the city and the developer. The city always wanted more people. More people just meant longer lines, Bob complained, at the market, the bank – even to vote. Of course, floods and tornadoes threatened, too. Along with the pesticides in the groundwater.
“Uncle Bob, you really have got to consider moving somewhere you find more pleasant.” said the Soupster.
“Never happen, Nephew,” Bob said. “Where else are real estate prices this low?
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The Soupster learns that sometimes more than the peppers get stuffed.
The Soupster sat at a back table at Nemo’s Café, spooning Rockfish-and-Beach-Asparagus Chowder into his mouth. Hunched over his steaming bowl, he read a copy of his publication, the Sitka Soup.
Then the Soupster stiffened. “Waiter!” he called out. “There’s a fly in my Soup!”
Manny, the new waiter, hurried over to the Soupster’s table and examined the stew. “I don’t see anything in there,” he said.
“Not in my soup,” said the Soupster, waving a copy of his publication aloft. “There’s a fly in my Sitka Soup!”
Indeed, there was a fly, on page 10. (Ed. Note: yup!)
“Can’t help you there,” the waiter said.
“Manny,” asked the Soupster. “Have you ever encountered a real fly in a bowl of real soup?”
“Not flies in the soup — no,” said Manny.
“Stuffed fish and animal heads on the walls, like Guinness Book amounts of them — definitely.”
“Do tell,” said the Soupster.
“A place up north I worked at one summer, Ike’s Roadhouse,” Manny said. “In his younger days, Ike was an Olympian athlete of hunters. And he liked to stuff his trophies. Moose, goat, sheep heads on the roadhouse walls. Stuffed gamebirds all over. Mounted fish. An entire black bear.
“Doesn’t sound real hygienic,” said the Soupster.
“I have to admit that Ike’s place wouldn’t have passed inspection,” Manny said. “That is, if there was an inspector within 1,000 miles.”
“Anyhow, Ike was such a good cook, everyone was happy to overlook the occasional ptarmigan feather in the oatmeal,” Manny went on. “There was a bit of discussion sometimes about exactly what critters went into the fricassee, but that didn’t stop people from scarfing it.
“Then Ike got old and his son took over. And then the son got old, so the grandson took over. But Old Ike still went to the restaurant every day and sat in a chair in the corner, telling stories and taking silent naps.
“Old Ike would be telling you some tall tale and would fall asleep in the middle of a sentence and revert back to his silent, sleeping mode like an unconscious Jabba the Hutt.
“One day, a visitor arrived and announced that he’d journeyed 4,000 miles for a taste of the Roadhouse’s famous sourdough flapjacks. The man evidently read about them in some Great Land handbook and got an insatiable yen.
“So, the grandson makes the flapjacks and the visitor chomps away, all compliments. The visitor remarks on how colorful the Roadhouse was, with all the taxidermy.
“Then, he asks who started the establishment. Ike’s grandson proudly says Old Ike started the roadhouse half a century ago. And, tells how the old Sourdough has been in the restaurant every day since.
“`In fact,’ says the grandson, pointing to his granddad in the tangle of taxidermied creatures. `Old Ike is right there.’
“The look that crossed the visitor’s face was pure horror. You could see he was having a hard time telling if Old Ike was stuffed, too.
“The grandson turned around for a second, to chuckle at the old man sleeping away. And when he turned back, all that was left was a $20 bill and a half-eaten stack of pancakes. The visitor was gone!”
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Discussing Our Town’s flaws, the Soupster sees an old acquaintance.
Originally published July 15, 2010
A strong sun shone on the well-named Clement Climes, who was sitting on a folding chair scarfing a Hellfire Halibut Spicy Skewer at Santa’s Seafood Truck downtown.
The Soupster noticed the pepper-induced sweat dripping off Clem’s brow. “I prefer the Sweetly Rubbed Salmon,” the Soupster said to his co-diner, simultaneously ordering the Rub.
“Paradise today,” said the Soupster, as his salmon sizzled on the grill. He gazed at Our Town’s gleaming water and green mountains. “Clem, you grew up here. Remind me of something wrong with this place.”
Clem sucked a couple of ice cubes from his drink and crunched them against the wildfire in his mouth. “When folks leave, they really leave,” he said in a jalapeño-choked voice. “Nobody ever moves a half hour or an hour away – how could they? They’re gone. It’s hard on the adults, but really hard on the kids.”
“Once they leave the Our Town Bubble, they’re gone,” Clem concluded.
The Soupster retrieved his perfectly prepared salmon. “I feel like I’m leaving a bubble when I fly out of the country from the Lower 48,” he told Clem, after a bite. “I feel like when I’m overseas, I can no longer take it for granted that anything is going to make sense. Come to think of it, I feel that way about the Lower 48 now, too.”
“But you hail from the Lower 48,” said Climes. “How do you feel about being so far from your old stomping grounds?”
“Fine,” said the Soupster, taking another bite. “I do miss people and never, ever expect to see anybody from there anymore.”
That moment an extremely tall tourist walked right up to the Soupster and clamped his gigantic hand on the much shorter man’s shoulder. “Soupster?” he asked.
“Chris Louie?” an amazed Soupster yelled up to him. “`Shrimp’ Louie?”
“We went to the same high school,” the enormous Shrimp explained to Clem.
Clem looked back and forth between the two men. “Soupster,” he said, “I thought you got named Soupster in Our Town because you publish the Soup. You mean they called you Soupster all along? How did you get the name?”
“That,” said the Soupster, “is a whole story in itself.”
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Sometimes, the Soupster discovers, the last comes out first.
Sometimes you pity someone and that is the start of a relationship that turns out to have no cause for pity. That’s what the Soupster thought as he considered the story of Roland Greevy, who showed up at the coffee shop on his bicycle and without a helmet. His bike looked held together with fishing wire and candle wax. His border collie, Scruffy, aptly named.
The Greevys were well-known in Our Town. Old Man Greevy had been memorable for making real estate investments that always paid off, and for his generosity with his windfalls. Two of his three sons left Our Town and soared – Otto Greevy to the federal judiciary and Eugene Greevy to NASA.
In high school, Otto had been big in Student Council, well-respected for keeping his cool rationality while his classmates panicked. Beloved “Big Gene” was a star athlete, the commander of Our Town youths who occasionally left the island to vanquish friend and foe in battles of baseball and track.
Roland, by contrast, had been such a frequent visitor to the principal’s office that he felt comfortable there, almost a second home. The principal, a stern fellow but an understanding one, had experience with sons. He gave Roland tasks to do and Roland sometimes actually felt useful.
Old Man Greevy had no time for middle-child Roland. Greevy gave his full attention to the charismatic Otto and the heroic Eugene. When his two “good sons” continued their success streak in college, Greevy felt more relevant in their lives than when they were younger. His two freshly-minted adults often sought his counsel about navigating their new world.
Roland didn’t go to college, living at home until the Old Man got too critical of him, then moved to Seattle and wasted his potential there. Roland would come home when he needed money or medicine or rest, and hear his father tell tales of his spectacular siblings.
Over the years, Otto and Eugene did better and better, became busier and busier. They had less and less time for Our Town and Old Greevy. They sought his consultation less and less. Finally, not at all. But Roland still came home regularly to borrow money or obtain medicine or to rest.
As the Old Man got on in years, Roland noticed a change in his father. A sadness in his creaky movements. Roland still scored nuggets of his father’s savings, but more and more it was his father who needed the medicine and the rest. And the painting of the fence, and the filling out of the form, and company for the occasional grilled king at Old Greevy’s favorite bistro.
At the funeral, it was the Old Man’s friends who told Roland what a comfort he had been to his father and how often his father had spoken of his gratefulness for Roland’s help. Roland lavished special attention on his two brothers, who seemed uncomfortable and unmoored, not having been home for so long.
Otto took care of the legal matters and Eugene wrote the obituary. Roland was supposed to take care of selling the house. But when he calculated the energy it would take to dispose of his father’s 50-year accumulation of stuff, he wisely decided to keep everything the same and move in himself. Otto and Eugene happily signed off on their claims.
And from that house, Roland had pedaled to the coffee shop.
“Fine day, don’t you think?” the Soupster asked.
“I like it,” Roland answered.
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The Soupster gauges his tolerance for surprise.
The ringing phone jerked the Soupster up, still half asleep. He retained a bit of his dream of someone noisily dropping big rocks outside his bedroom window, but rapidly lost the details as he became more awake. Who was calling him so early?
Twice in the past the Soupster – a late riser – had similarly leapt out of a deep sleep to find there was good reason for him to wake.
One bright morning some years back, the Soupster had been fast asleep, his biggest challenge keeping the cool side of the pillow against his cheek. He dreamt that he was back with some beloved friends he had not seen since childhood, although they were all grown up in the dream.
From that dreamy state, he had bolted upright when a chainsaw wailed and then a big branch of the hemlock tree outside his window crashed to the ground. The Soupster staggered to the window, wiping the sleep sand from his eyes. Up in the hemlock was his tree guy, Martin, now working on his second branch.
The Soupster had run into Marty at the grocery store and mentioned a hemlock tree that needed to come down. Marty said he would get to it when he had time. The Soupster had been satisfied, thinking Marty would check in with him before starting.
“Well, I had some time come open today, so I figured I could get right to your tree,” Marty called down from 10 feet in the air. “I know you never told me which tree, but when I got here it was pretty obvious this hemlock had to go.”
The Soupster shook his head in amazement and muttered a little.
The second time, the Soupster had been dreaming that he was fishing from the cockpit of a gas-guzzling sport boat he used to own, but he kept pulling up phone and cable bills instead of fish.
From the living room came the unmistakable screech of long nails being pulled from wood, which yanked him awake. He threw on his robe.
In the living room, Greg, the glass guy, was removing the frame of the big picture window.
Two months previously, the Soupster had talked to Greg about replacing the window and Greg was supposed to call him back. No word. The work was now underway
Greg volunteered an explanation reminiscent of Martin’s. He said a piece of glass he was expecting had missed the barge, freeing up his morning. And while reading a copy of the Sitka Soup over coffee, he had remembered the Soupster’s picture window.
But back to the ringing phone in the present. Calling was the Soupster’s nephew, Stewart.
“Uncle Soupster!” said Stew.
“Stewster!” said the Soupster. “Is everything all right?”
“Sure, Uncle Soupster,” Stew said. “I tried calling my Dad to wish him a happy Father’s Day, but there was no answer. You’re the next best thing to a father. Happy Father’s Day, Uncle Soupster!”
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The Soupster experiences hot gossip and hotter food.
At a table at Our Town’s new Indian/Pakistani restaurant, Naan Plus, the Soupster sucked on an ice cube to cool his mouth from a fiery vindaloo. Sweat dripped off the tip of his nose and his eyes teared freely.
“So hot!” the Soupster croaked.
His tablemate, Sally Crewsin, had ordered the milder biryani and looked at him with sympathy. “At least this lunch is free,” she said.
Sally was paying the tab to reward the Soupster for helping her sell her house. She had placed a classified ad in the Soupster’s eponymous publication and had three offers in one week. Of course, blonde and bright-eyed Sally had a house as adorable as she was and the price she asked was more than reasonable.
“Hey, Soupster,” she said to change the subject from agony and hellfire to something less uncomfortable. “Why did you name the Soup the Soup?”
“I didn’t name it,” the Soupster gasped, inexplicably still eating his volcanic entrée, despite the pain. “Rolene did. She started the Soup and sold it to me.”
Rolene Bently occupied the body of a middle-aged woman, but had the soul of a frontier pioneer. She was a serial entrepreneur, starting several businesses and then selling them when a newer idea consumed her instead.
“She named the Sitka Soup after her grandmother’s soup, which was made out of whatever was on hand right then. In the early days when the Soup was wildly unpredictable, the name made even more sense.”
“Rolene was something else, you bet,” said Sally. “Did you know she was doing a kind of Airbnb before they invented Airbnb?”
The Soupster nodded and chuckled.
“Rolene had a list of people with spare rooms and would hook up lodging-seeking visitors to Our Town,” Sally said. “Then she moved on to cars and boats. At the height of her popularity, Rolene oversaw land and sea fleets worthy of a military operation. She kept it all straight.”
“Where is Rolene now?” asked the Soupster.
“Somewhere in Wyoming,” said Sally.
“No doubt organizing cowboys into some sort of Ranchbnb,” said the Soupster.
The waiter came with their third dish, a creamy sauce with visible pieces of chicken.
“It’s tikka masala – some people call it butter chicken and it’s very mild,” said Sally. “It’s is more popular in Britain now than fish `n chips.”
The Soupster moaned with relief as the creamy sauce coated his overheated mouth. He pushed the spicy vindaloo to the side. “I’ll eat no more of that,” he said.
“Another of Rolene’s obsessions was food waste,” said Sally. “I bet she would be able to find somebody who wanted your remaining vindaloo. I bet you’d be willing to trade the vindaloo for more tikka masala.”
“Or an ice cold glass of milk,” said the Soupster, whose mouth still smarted.
“Rolene would call it Leftoversbnb,” said Sally.
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