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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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The Soupster learns the past is the past.
The Soupster pulled alongside the drive-up window, credit card in hand, prepared to receive the pomegranate lemonade smoothie he craved. The barista gave him the drink, sweating in its plastic cup, but declined to take the Soupster’s offering of his own plastic.
The barista giggled. “Your drink’s been paid for.”
The Soupster was delighted, but confused. Or confused, but delighted? Point was, he was grinning while flummoxed. He popped the straw into his tart drink and sipped as he drove away.
Who was the generous stranger? Or mischievous friend? This never happened to the Soupster, whose appearance was rough enough, evidently, to ward off strangers handing out free lemonade. He wondered how it would feel to be sitting in a tavern and have the bartender say, “The (lady or gentleman) at the end of the bar would like to buy you a refreshment.” A tiny, wee bit like Publisher’s Clearing House appearing at your door promising a $1,000 a week for life?
“There are those who receive free pomegranate lemonades and those who buy them for others,” thought the Soupster, who considered himself one of the latter.
At lunchtime, the Soupster sat in a booth, studying the menu of one of Our Town’s venerable eateries, the Tin Crab. Chowing down on his favorite geoduck tacos, he pondered the mystery of the free lemonade.
The Soupster was a regular patron at “The T.C.” The vinyl-clad booths hid the Soupster, and he went there when he wanted to go incognito. A quarter century earlier, back in his newspapering days, the Soupster had met with Sharon Stewart at The T.C. after the miraculous recovery of her heirloom wedding ring.
* * *
Sharon had married into an old Our Town family. The ring — diamonds in a gold filigree — had been her husband Robert’s great-grandmother’s. At Sharon’s wedding, the ring felt a little loose on her finger. Robert was crazily active and, after two years of following his lead, Sharon sculpted herself down to the svelte. Too svelte. The ring fell off her newly-thin finger somewhere in Our Town. Robert’s family was aghast, but too polite to blame Sharon, which was worse for her than being yelled at.
The tragedy brought out the best in the Soupster. He interviewed Sharon and her family and wrote such a heart-rending story that all manner of Our Towners made it their personal responsibility to find the ring. All over Our Town, pedestrians literally beat the bushes. Motorists scrutinized the tarmac of every parking lot. People searched at work, which is where the ring was finally found. Behind a rolling stool in Sharon’s doctor’s office.
Sharon tracked the Soupster to the Tin Crab, where he was enjoying rockfish and beach asparagus ravioli. She hugged and kissed him and showed him where she had used a piece of tape to make the ring tighter.
When the Soupster went to leave, Howard — The T. C.’s owner, bouncer and executive chef – refused to take any money. “You earned the ravioli,” he said.
Back in the present, the Soupster finished his geoduck tacos and put on his coat. Thinking about Sharon, he made for the door.
Only to get stopped cold by Howard’s booming baritone. All the diners looked up.
“Hey, Soupster!” Howard called out. “You gonna to pay for that?”
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The Soupster hears lies?
“Soupster!” called Joey the Liar from the far side of the street. Joey was so named because everything he said was a lie.
“I’ve been looking all over for you,” said Joey as he sidled his big frame next to the Soupster. “I was worried I would miss you.”
“Hi, Joey,” said the Soupster, who knew Joey was tough to deal with, everything he said being a lie. “What are you doing these days?”
“Same, but different,” said Joey. “Once in a while.”
“Have any plans for the weekend?”
“I thought I’d call my mother for Mother’s Day and all,” said Joey.
“She doesn’t live here?” asked the Soupster.
“Reno,” said Joey. “She’s a stage star in the casinos. She could have gone to Vegas but she wanted my younger brothers and sisters to have a more normal life, which she has found in Reno.”
“Is this true?” asked the Soupster.
“Not entirely,” said Joey. “Before Reno, she lived with me in Chicago, where she was a meat cutter at a huge plant. All her skirts had blood dripping down the front of them. It was a long time before I found out that hamburgers didn’t come out of my mother’s pockets.”
“Joey,” I really don’t have time for this,” said the Soupster.
“All right, she’s quite normal,” Joey said. “She lives in Bothell and works in a bottling plant…”
“Joey! A Bothell bottler?” said an exasperated Soupster.
“Brunette, too,” said Joey. “My mother is the spitting image of Betty Crocker and Donna Reed. She played the piano and there were always fresh flowers, even in winter. My favorite time was waking up Sunday mornings and smelling the bacon frying downstairs. Sticking my head out into the cool room from under the warm blanket. The smell of bacon.”
The Soupster almost believed him. “I almost believe you, Joey,” said the Soupster. Joey, who knew of his reputation, took no offense.
“I wouldn’t want you to do that,” he said.
“So, really,” said the Soupster.”About your mother? You wax so poetic and range so far afield that you sound like a wistful orphan. Are you an orphan?”
“Absolutely not!” said Joey the Liar.
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The locksmith tells the Soupster a fish story.
Did Elijah Langossian really have a glowing aura around his head, wondered the Soupster as he approached him by the lake, or was it just the angle of the setting sun? No, it was him, the Soupster surmised, as he came close enough to see Elijah’s shining visage.
“Soupster!” Elijah said. The sturdy and diminutive locksmith too often carried his troubles on his face. But not today.
“Elijah!” the Soupster countered. “You’re glistening like a king salmon pulled fresh from the water!”
“Funny you should mention fishing,” said Elijah. “I just had a guy in my shop who’d caught the biggest halibut anybody had ever seen and it was his first time jigging.”
“Oh, what a feeling,” the Soupster sang. “But what does a locksmith have to do with catching fish?”
“That’s what I asked,” Elijah said. “I was just closing up the office and this fella was sitting in the reception room looking like he ate the canary. An older man. Well, older than us.”
Ed. note: Neither Elijah nor the Soupster are spring chickens. Winter turkeys, occasionally.
“So I said, `Hello, Sir. Can I help you with anything?’” Elijah continued.
“`Not really,’ said the guy.
“`Anything to do with locks?’ I asked. `Keys, hasps or spring hinges?’
“The guy shook his head and got this big grin on his face.
“`Well,’ said I, `this is a locksmith’s shop and I’m the locksmith. And I want to go home and eat dinner with the locksmith’s wife. So, if there’s nothing I can help you with…’
“`I went out fishing today,’ the words tumbled from the man. `My grandson-in-law took me.’
“`Well, sir, that’s nice, but…’ I said.
“`I’m a landlubber by preference,’ the man told me. `I encounter fish only when it’s served to me on a plate. But that boy my granddaughter married, he worked on getting me out on his boat like it was his main goal in life. I could only hold out for so long.’
“This story have anything at all to do with locks?” the Soupster asked.
“`The sea was calm,” Elijah recounted that the oldster went on. `My grandson-in-law’s boat was swift. Soon we were at the halibut hole. The others all caught fish, but I was striking out. Then I felt this tug on my arms like I hooked the whole bottom of the ocean or maybe Moby Dick. When I finally landed the fish after an hour or more, my behemoth weighed in at 392 pounds. Three hundred and ninety-two pounds!’
“`That’s fantastic,’ I told him. `But I’m a locksmith. I deal in keys, hasps and spring hinges. Why are you telling me about your 392-pound fish?’
“`I’m telling everybody!’ the old man said.
“And then he was out the door.”
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The Soupster experiences people who gained expertise during childhood.
As an astounded Soupster gawked, little Antoinette Curtis hoisted up a bag of soil that weighed nearly as much as she did, walked the ten yards from the hardware store with it and then placed the bag in the rear of the Soupster’s hatchback. She then performed the same maneuver two more times with two more bags. She was not breathing heavily.
Antoinette was small, but in that wiry way that sometimes belies great physical strength in men. The Soupster, the recent recipient of a back injury, truly enjoyed watching the unlikely occurring before his eyes.
“You’re stronger than you look, Toni,” the Soupster marveled.
“That’s ‘cause I’m from Port Alexander,” Toni said, as she worked.
“Something in P.A.’s drinking water that makes you strong?” asked the Soupster.
“My father made me strong,” Toni said. “Hauling a lot of fish and crab into the boat over the years made me strong. My brother…”
“Your brother made you strong?”
“Hoisting him back into the boat about once a month did,” Toni said. The Soupster bid Toni Curtis farewell.
At the grocery store, the Soupster stood in the checkout line in front of Gene Burnett, a well-regarded small engine mechanic. The Soupster put six cans of cat food onto the moving belt along with his other items.
“Six cans at 89 cents each,” the Soupster said aloud.
“Five dollars and 34 cents,” Gene said immediately.
“They used to be 83 cents each,” said the Soupster.
“Four ninety-eight,” said Gene lickety-split.
“Where’d you learn to multiply?”
“I’m originally from Kake,” said Gene. “We had a teacher there for a few years who was obsessed with multiplication. Made us memorize the multiplication tables way past 12 times 12. Me and some of my friends got really good at it.”
“You sure did,” said the Soupster, as he bid Eugene adieu.
Outside, the Soupster pondered these talented people who’d come to Our Town from other Southeast settlements and enriched our lives.
The Soupster was jolted from his reverie by two dogs fighting in the bed of a pickup truck. They had gotten their leashes tangled. The dogs howled, snarled and cried as they struggled to get free and blamed each other for their predicament. They sounded ferocious.
Then, a burly man wearing XtraTufs and suspenders fearlessly approached the fighting dogs. He straightened their tangled leashes and got them both wagging their tails.
Watching, the Soupster thought, what Southeastern town had produced such a gifted peacemaker? He approached the man and complimented him.
“There must have been a lot of dogs where you grew up,” said the Soupster. “What Panhandle village do you hail from?”
“Panhandle?” said the man, confused. “I hail from Springfield, Illinois.”
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The Soupster reminisces about childhood games with the librarian.
“Here for more of your favorite biographies, Soupster?” Ms. Conklin, the librarian said at the book check-out counter.
“There’s nothing more interesting than the life stories of people,” answered the Soupster.. “Nothing in the whole world.”
“What is it about biographies that so particularly fascinates you?” asked Ms. Conklin.
“The patterns of a life,” the Soupster said, “especially from the vantage point of the future looking back. Minor events that go this way and that hold vast influence later on.”
“Sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” he concluded.
“Pardon?” said Conklin.
“It’s the term they use in math’s new chaos theory,” the Soupster explained. “Small changes at one time mean big changes in another. A butterfly flaps its wings in Beijing and it affects the weather in New York.”
“I find for instance,,” he continued, “that people who excel in certain areas in later life – like music or even finance – show an early talent and interest in related topics.”
“True for me,” said Ms. Conklin. “When I was a child, I actually used to play library. All my friends would play house or with their dolls. I would line up all my books, my desk and a chair and make my parents come in my room, choose books and then check them out. I had a special little bear stamp I would use. I even used to make friends of my parents check out books when they came over to visit.”
“What did you play, Soupster?” Conklin asked.
“War stuff, “ said the Soupster. “A Union soldier trapped behind Confederate lines. Sailors in a flooded engine room trying to plug up the leaks. On another planet against monsters. Whatever hostile dramas we saw on TV and in the movies.”
“My family had no TV, so we read a lot” said Conklin. “Which may explain my library game. I used to play swimming pool, too. I made my parents rent towels and take a fake shower before they could sit on the living room couch. I used to blow a whistle at my father and make him get out of the deep end. They thought I was loony.”
“Were you ever a lifeguard?” asked the Souipster.
“I was never a lifeguard,” Ms. Conklin said, stamping the return date into the last of the Soupster’s biographies. “But I’ve saved people from drowning in some really lousy prose.”
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The Soupster discovers that he who smelt it had not, in fact, dealt it.
“Ouch,” said the Soupster, as gaseous billows reached him. “You cut the cheese, Doc?”
“Beg pardon?” said the esteemed doctor of philosophy, Gerrit van Schmenken, visiting the Soupster from South Africa. “Cut what cheese?” van Schmenken said, looking around the Soupster’s study, where he saw there comfortable chairs, walls of books, a sleeping cat and a half-sized statue of W.C. Fields. Certainly no cheese.
“You know, did you send me `a message from below?’” the Soupster pressed.
“What?” said van Schmenken.
“A `bottom belch?’” the Soupster continued, unabated. “`Did you `step on a duck?’ Are you `starting a vapor feud?’”
“Oh, `Baff,’” said Dr. van Schmenken.
“I don’t know what that means, but I don’t like it,” said the Soupster.
“No, you don’t understand,” said van Schmenken.. “In Johannesburg, we say `baff’ for a `trump.’ No — `trump’ is the British term. I’ve got it — `farting’ – that’s what you Yanks and Aussies say, isn’t it?”
“Not in polite company,” said the Soupster.
“What do you say in polite company?”
“Well, `breaking wind’ or `passing gas’ are the most acceptable terms here,” the Soupster answered. “If you were in the right crowd you could also say `Oops! I just let Fluffy off the leash.’”
“And the less polite?” van Schmenken asked.
“Revolting release,” said the Soupster. “Creaky floorboards. Thunder from Down Under. The Y2K Problem.”
“So these colorful American names can be attached to your `imposition on the atmosphere?’” van Schmenken said.
“Good one,” said the Soupster.
“He who smelt it, dealt it,” countered van Schmenken.
“I thought you didn’t know American,” said a surprised Soupster.
“We have the roughly the same saying – it’s the same idea anyway,” said van Schmenken.
“Don’t try and shift the blame, Doc,” said the Soupster. “That was your `gut bubble’ wasn’t it? Didn’t you have to take some kind of oath of truthfulness to be a philosopher?”
“We’re still arguing about what truth is,” said van Schmenken.
“Well, if it wasn’t my `Little Orphan Onion’ and it wasn’t your `bench warmer,’ whose was it?”
“Not W.C. Fields,” said Dr. van Schmenken.
“There’s no one else here, but…” said the Soupster — then he and van Schmenken realized immediately.
“Cat baff!” said van Schmenken. “Gross!”
Originally published Feb. 26, 2004
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