Soup 101

The rain hammered down. Ten minutes ago, the sun had upstaged it in the play of Portland weather, and was sure to repeat the performance in another ten.

Audrey cut celery and carrots into chunks, scrubbed the parsnips and rutabaga and chopped them, too. She peeled the onion but left it whole, cut three small x’s into the flesh and pushed a clove into each one. She tied sprigs of oregano, thyme and a bay leaf together with kitchen string. All of this went into the big cast iron pot. She rinsed the chicken, tore off the glob of fat just inside the cavity and set it on the vegetables. She filled the pot with water (about six quarts) to cover everything. She hoisted the pot (a heavy sonuvagun) to the stove, poured a teaspoon-sized mound of salt in her left hand and threw that in, and turned on the fire.

The water would heat slowly to a simmer. It was important that it happen slowly to draw out the flavors and gently coax the meat from the bones. A longer time, a richer infusion.

I’m missing something, Audrey thought… chicken, vegetables, herbs—parsley! Forgot the goddamn parsley. She checked the flame, waited a minute for the latest rain drama to end, and went outside.

Pam Wells/The Pullets

The midday sun soothed her back as she reached down for the parsley, one of the few bright spots in her edible garden. In fact the parsley would soon go to seed; she should pick as much as she could use in the next week or so to encourage new growth. Felder liked parsley…

Audrey was admiring the potted plants on Felder’s front porch when he opened the door.

“Audrey, hello, come in, don’t mind the mess.” He ushered her inside, which wasn’t a mess at all except for some cockeyed pictures of old movie stars—Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, and was that William Holden?

“Brought you a little bonus from the garden,” she said, handing him a bag of the green stuff.

“I didn’t know you grew marijuana,” he said.

“Felder, there’s a lot you don’t know about me.”

“Would you like some tea?”

“Oh, I would, but I’ve got something on the stove.”

“You could yell over the hedge to Joe. Have him check it.”

“No—no, he’s—” Audrey couldn’t finish the sentence.

Felder saw the tears welling in her eyes. “Unavailable?”

Audrey nodded. “He took a wok to L.A.”

“Odd way to get there.”

“Oh, no, I mean—”

They went out onto the porch. The sky was fifty-fifty, clouds to clear blue, and the air was fresh. Audrey explained with a few pauses that Joe had hit the road early, that he had been invited by a friend in Los Angeles—or was it Burbank?—to housesit for a couple of months. There was also a girl named Heather who was missing her stir-fry pan. Joe was determined to make it as a screenwriter, and all he had to do was to take care of the plants and the dog and the pool, and find some sort of job where he could meet more people in Hollywood.

Felder’s eyes twinkled. “People like me.”

Audrey laughed. “Yes, just like you, Steve Spielberg.”

“Well, I was never a household name. More of a Sam Spiegel.” He let her chuckle a little more. “There’s a lot you don’t know about me, too.”

Audrey gasped. “You’re serious! You’re a producer? You never said anything!”

“Gave it up after Sarah died. The movies weren’t much fun anymore.”

“I’m, I’m stunned. Maybe I will have that cup of tea. What time is it? We could make it a cup of something else, couldn’t we?”

Felder looked up at the sky. “This soup’s clearing up. Why don’t we take a walk first?”

“Not to L.A.”

“Oh, what about your cooking?”

Audrey shrugged. “It can wait.”

She ran home and turned down the flame. The soup would be even better tomorrow.

©2010 Pam Wells


Domestic spying

“Not gonna get him here any faster,” Joe said.

“That’s not what I’m doing,” Audrey said. Standing watchful on the patio, she pointed toward an iron rack under the eave which held a collection of pots and watering cans. “The one on the end.”

Joe followed her gaze to a small brass watering can. Overhead, a pair of Black-capped Chickadees flicked through the branches of the lodgepole pine. A minute of stillness… and one of the birds flew to the edge of the can, then dropped inside.

Pam Wells/The Pullets

“A nest!” Joe said. “Are there eggs?”

Audrey wasn’t sure. Joe took his phone from his pocket. He touched the camera icon and held it over the watering can. Mama chickadee burst out and tcheek-tcheeked at him.

“Good job,” Audrey said. “Got her feathers in a frizz.”

Joe got what he wanted: an interior shot of the well-insulated chickadee home. Six speckled eggs lay in a nest of pine needles and twigs packed inside the little watering can.

“Oh, sweet!” Audrey said. She was still looking at the picture when her SUV came down the driveway. She looked up quickly, and without thinking about it she put Joe’s phone in her pocket. She skipped toward the garage where Carl was getting out of the passenger seat. Evan walked around from the driver’s side, his face a mixture of resignation and relief. Audrey couldn’t tell if he was sad or glad. He was both; he’d passed his driving test but now he had to get a job to pay for his insurance.

“Happy birthday!” Audrey said.

On the way to the house, as Joe ragged on Evan to show him his new driver’s license, Audrey nudged Carl to hang back. “Did he talk you you?” she asked.

“Yeah. Did you know funeral processions don’t have to stop at intersections?”

“Really? No, not about driving, about Danni! About her moving to Tacoma.”

“Aud—no. I didn’t want to remind him. He’ll get over it, and the less he has to talk about it, the faster that’ll be.”

She stared at her husband. Oy. “Come on, I want to show you something.” She led him to the patio, put a finger to her lips and tiptoed toward the pot rack.

“A new family,” she whispered.

“Of what? Baby pots?”

“Chickadees! A chickadee laid six eggs in there.”

“Audrey, why are we whispering? Eggs don’t have ears. Anyway, how do you know there’s six?”

“Joe took a picture. Oh—” She remembered his phone in her pocket. As she navigated to the photos, Joe’s phone rang.

It rang with a different photo, a photo of a sexy brunette in a tank top and shorts, identifying the caller: Heather Barnes.


“Not my phone,” he said.

“It’s an L.A. area code.”

“Not my area. Code.” He watched Audrey put the phone to her ear. “What are you doing?”

“Hello?” She listened, waving off Carl’s horrified look. “Oh, no, I’m his mom… yes, he lives with me… uh-huh… sure, okay.” She ended the call.

“I think you just ran a red light, dear,” Carl said.

“What are you, photo radar? She wants him to bring back her wok.”

“Her wok?”

“That’s what she said.”

“Bring it where?”

Over the course of the evening, Audrey and Joe pieced together the few clues they had: the girl, the wok, the phone number, Joe’s announcement that he would drive to L.A. on Friday, Evan’s intention to get a summer job in Tacoma, and Todd’s call from Japan to wish his bro a happy birthday and tell his fam he’d be coming home before being deployed to Afghanistan…

… all at once, Audrey and Carl concluded they were sitting too close to the screen, that the 3D effects were too real, and that perhaps the best view of things they held most precious might have to be from a distance of a hundred, or a thousand, or seven thousand, miles.

©2010 Pam Wells

The beast without

Just around the stand of firs, behind the spring-blooming shrub, stood a beast. This particular beast was eight feet tall, a thousand pounds and made of iron. Its legs were straight and strong, but its obvious lack of flexibility called for extra struts. The thing would have a hard time getting up if it fell over. It was a hungry beast, judging by the hole in its stomach; or maybe that was a perforated ulcer. The hole in its head suggested the intelligence of a bottle opener. It was frustrated, no doubt, by its stubby little arms.

Audrey had taken this loop of the trail on a whim. Urban trails around Portland encouraged whim-taking with bonuses such as this. Audrey studied the beast from her perch on a log. She clutched a journal and her seven-year pen, which had been a birthday gift last October. (She calculated that at her rate of use the ink would last another six weeks.)

Pam Wells/The Pullets

Half the journal was filled with dense, choppy handwriting. She flipped past it to a clean, blue-lined sheet. She couldn’t remember the description that had only moments ago rushed through her brain, so she sketched what it looked like and finally wrote:  Iron man. Really tall. Clunky, lunky, metal guy. No more words came out. She stared at the page.

She closed the journal.

She opened again to page one.

She looked up when the words bled from the first drops of rain.

• • • • •

Audrey shook out her anorak and hung it by the door.

“Hey, hon,” Carl said. “I was about ready to send the dog after you.”

“We don’t have a dog.”

“I was gonna get one and train him to your scent, and then send him after you.” He popped the bottlecap off the cold beer in his hand as Audrey ripped out the last journal page she’d written on.

“Next time, use this,” she said. “It really stinks.” She crumpled the page and threw it in the sink, which Carl retrieved and read.

“Iron man? Did he look like Robert Downey?”


“Clunky lunky metal guy. Huh.” He watched Audrey bang her head on the counter. “It’s not that bad. Sounds like something I’d write,” he said, eliciting a groan. “Why do you care?”

She looked up at him. “What?”

“Why do you care? What’s so important about this?”

“I don’t know—because suddenly there it was. Something to write about.”

“Maybe not.”

“You sound like Joe.”

“And you think that’s a coincidence? I’m just saying, maybe you should write something else.”

“Like what?”

“Like your novel. The thing you’ve been working on for ninety-nine years. You buy all these notebooks and fill ‘em with new ideas for new chapters and you haven’t even come up with a title. Am I right?” He opened the journal to the splattered first page.


“Happened so fast,” he read aloud. “Birth. My birth. My birth, mother says, was like getting caught in a steel bear trap. One minute she was seventeen with a cigarette in one hand and a boy in the other. Next minute she was a mom. Happened so fast.”

He snapped the journal shut. “Like that,” he said.

©2010 Pam Wells

All you can spin

Audrey saw legs sticking out from under the Volkswagen bus. “Joe?” No response. She kicked his foot. “Joe!”

Joe shimmied into view on the concrete garage floor. His hands greased black, he carefully pulled the earphones from his ears. “Hey, mom.”

“Have you seen Evan?”

“Not since he skidded out of here on his bike.”

Audrey smirked at him. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” He scrunched back under the bus.

Audrey started to leave but circled back. Her feet wanted to go but her curiosity was unwilling. “Did he say anything? Would he tell you if something was wrong?”

Joe shimmied back out. He held a sturdy don’t-ask-me look.

“Never mind,” she said, sure now that something was wrong. “You know, it’d be a lot easier to talk to you if you got one of those rolling things for under the car.”

“A creeper? Good idea, mom.”

“What are you doing under there, anyway?”

“Changing the oil.”

“You’ve been out here all day. Doesn’t take all day to change the oil.”

“Nope. Put on new brake pads and changed the spark plugs.”

Audrey stepped back to see the van in full, blue and white and recently washed. “Wow. Putting some TLC into the old hippie mobile, huh? You know, these are worth something now. Kind of funny—the people’s bus is a collector’s item. Like a Model T.”

“Not this people’s,” Joe said. He stood up, wiped his hands on a rag.

“No! I mean, it’s great you’re taking care of it. Then when you want to sell it, you know, it won’t have lost any value. It might even gain value. It’s an investment. You could keep this bus forever. Retire on it. Or even in it.”

Joe rolled his eyes. “It’s just my wheels, mom. Gets me from one place to another… though I probably wouldn’t take it to Alaska.” He spotted rust on a wheel rim and rubbed it with the rag.

Pam Wells/The Pullets

“Alaska? Joe—oh, forget it. I have to start dinner.” She headed back to the house, her thoughts now looping far from Evan.

• • • • •

Evan locked his bike to Danni’s wheelchair. He lifted her out of it, climbed the steps to the swinging car and placed her on the seat. This was a small Ferris wheel in a small park near the river, less imposing than the contraption which had inspired his mother’s Ferris phobia. He sat beside Danni and drew her near. They’d bought the All-You-Can-Spin tickets on the theory that many small revolutions could change the world, or at least keep her from moving to Tacoma.

©2010 Pam Wells


The tires brushed the curb as Audrey’s SUV took a right-hand turn.

“Dude! That’s an automatic fail right there.”

Evan groaned. He loosened his grip on the steering wheel just enough to complete the turn, not accelerating until the car was dead straight. He gradually picked up speed. His eyes darted back and forth between the mirrors.

“You gotta relax,” Joe said. “Any idiot can drive.”

“Not very well,” Evan said.

Pam Wells/The Pullets

Despite himself, Evan gained confidence and put his driver’s training knowledge to work so well that Joe said to drive home. “You have to get x-number of hours behind the wheel, right, before you get your license?”


“Any wheel?”

Evan was getting annoyed. “I don’t know—wait—”

• • • • •

The VW bus rattled and roared. Joe drove, Evan rode shotgun, and Animal Collective blasted over the sound system. They pulled out of the driveway and headed up the street a ways to warm up the engine, then onto a side street. Evan recognized it as the one he and Danni had cruised down when she’d told him about her accident. Joe pulled over just past the magnolia she’d made sure wasn’t passed off as a “tulip tree” to an innocent child a couple of months ago. Joe and Evan switched places.

“This is not a good idea,” Evan said.

“Yeah, prob’ly not,” Joe said, “but I’m kinda bored today. Gotta grease the clutch, okay? Clutch in, change gear, little gas, clutch out, more gas. Got it?”


Evan was right; he no got it. Miserable minutes went by in which he coaxed the bus onward only because it lurched each time it died. Finally he gave it enough gas to keep it moving in first gear.

“Second gear!” Joe yelled. “Good—slow down—brake, godammit, brake!”

The bus lurched and died in full view of the park. In full view of Danni. She waved.

Evan dropped his head on the steering wheel.

“Awesome timing,” Joe said.

“You think?”

“Go on, dude,” Joe said. “I’ve got a book.”

Joe reached behind the seat for a paperback as Evan got out of the bus. A few steps toward Danni and he’d pulled himself together. She always had that effect on him.

“I was waiting for you,” she said. “Didn’t think you’d drive up.”

“Well, it’s just—did we have a—I mean—”

“A date? No. Come on, let’s walk.”

Evan pushed her wheelchair. He’d figured out how to push it with one hand so he could walk more or less next to her instead of behind her.

“Have you ever been to Tacoma?” she asked.

“Not really,” he said. “I’ve gone by it on the train. The glass museum, couple of big bridges—”

“The Tacoma Narrows bridge collapsed four months after it was built in 1940.” Her voice wasn’t rising as it usually did, but staying in a quiet range. “It was the wind, and the vibration….”

Evan would’ve liked to hear more about the bridges—Danni was a rolling encyclopedia—but that’s all she had to say until they reached the far side of the park.

“My dad’s a professor,” she said.

“Uh, I think I knew that. Portland State, right?”

“Yes.” Danni bowed her head so her long hair closed around her face. “No.” As she looked up at him, her dark eyes filled with tears.

“Ohmygod, you’re leaving, aren’t you?” He knelt, kissed her sweetly and wrapped his arms around her. He didn’t notice the sound of the VW starting up, or the low song of the engine as it drove away.

©2010 Pam Wells

When you’re having fun

Audrey estimated there were two hundred and ninety-nine shoppers in Costco besides herself. All trying to check out at the same time. All ahead of her.

Synchronous behavior, group think, group dynamics, herd mentality, lemming mentality… Audrey had gotten in line all the way back in the cracker aisle, wondering why she didn’t just turn around and shop some more until the crowds had gone. She’d be there just as long and spend more money, but at least she wouldn’t be stuck in one spot. It’s like seeing the freeway all jammed up ahead of you, she reasoned, so you take the nearest exit just to get off. It takes just as long to get home because you’re on the surface streets, you get stuck at traffic lights and probably use more gas, but you feel more in control. You’re in motion.

Pam Wells/The Pullets

Some people are better prepared for interminable waits than others, Audrey observed. They chat with other people in line, and maybe they’ve brought someone along to amuse them for this very reason: a contingency friend. Or they talk on the phone, check email, send email, go online—could you stand at the back of the line with an empty cart, order your groceries online and have them ready for pickup by the time you got to the register? Probably not.

A man next to the granola bars was reading a book. Now, that was smart. There was a time Audrey never went anywhere without a paperback in her purse. Then something had happened… kids had happened. Woe to the mother who stands in a checkout line reading a book if she’s brought her kids along. On the other hand, instead of tearing out her hair, she might be an island of calm, lost in a Southern courtroom or an Egyptian tomb, while little Dooley and little Dudley were playing street sweeper with mummy’s new hairbrush. And maybe Dooley and Dudley would find their own little islands of calm…

As Audrey crept forward in line, her thoughts drifted to another of Phil Margolin’s books, After Dark. Something the main character said in an early chapter was bugging her and she couldn’t wait to find out if it was a clue to anything later on. This character, a young attorney named Tracy, compares law to mathematics, saying that law imposes order on society the way that math imposes order on science. Uh, hello! Law might impose order on society, but math can’t impose order on science or influence it in any way. Math describes science, helps to understand it. This Tracy character says lawyers are guardians of the law. Does that make mathematicians guardians of math? What does it mean to the story? Will Tracy’s faulty thinking get somebody killed?

“Ma’am, any boxes today?”

“Sorry?” Audrey came out of her reverie.

“Do you want any boxes?”

“Yes, please.” She began to unload her cart onto the conveyor. “I didn’t expect the line to go so fast.”

On the way home, Audrey stopped at a red light and watched the orderly progress of traffic. Maybe law happens naturally whenever people live together and don’t want to run into each other. Who needs lawyers? It was harder to imagine a society without mathematicians or writers.

©2010 Pam Wells

Time flies

Evan sat on a tree stump in the back yard, watching the earth revolve. He balanced a laptop on his knees as the linear shadow fell across the face of the sundial, a short crawl past IV.

“Hello, there.”

Evan looked up. “Hi, Felder,” he said.

“Thought I might find your mother out here,” Felder said.

“You just missed her,” Evan said. “She was late for something.”

“Well, I’ll catch her later,” Felder said, turning toward home. “Just wanted to steal some parsley.”

Pam Wells/The Pullets

“Wait—have you ever heard this?” Evan leaned over the sundial. A phrase was cast into the top surface: “Time is a river without banks,” he read.

Felder gave it a moment to jangle. “Nope, don’t think so. Sounds like something you could find in Bartlett’s, though.”

Evan shook his head. “I googled it and the only thing I could find was the name of a painting.”

“Hhm. Well, I don’t know much about that. Something for school, I take it.”

“Yeah. We have to write about time, and I thought this’d be easy. But the more I think about it, the less sense it makes. I mean, time as a river is cool, I guess, but a river without banks? That’s a flood.”

“Time as a flood… nope, doesn’t work for me, either. Hang on, now, you said something about a painting.”

“Yeah, it’s by Marc Chagall,” Evan said. He clicked a window on his computer and a painting filled the screen: A huge flying fish carried a clock and a violin over a river, and two lovers lay on the bank. The title matched the words cast in the sundial.

“Pretty wacky, huh?” Evan said.

“Oh, the mind of an artist, it’s a wacky place to go,” Felder said. “Wasn’t he French?”

“French and Russian. And Jewish.”

Felder raised his bushy brows. “Jewish isn’t a nationality, but that’s all right. I was just thinking… now, what I was going to say… oh, the title. Do you suppose he wrote the title in English?”

“Probably not. Probably wrote it in French.”

“Aha. Yes. So it’s possible the translation might be a little… well, a little—”

“Stupid.” Evan was finally enjoying the process. He translated the English title into French, played around with some alternate words and finally was able to locate the painting under its original French title, Le temps n’a point de rives.

“Which means, ‘Time does not have banks,’” Evan said.

“I wish you’d stop talking about banks,” Felder said.

“Shores, then. And Chagall didn’t even make it up. It’s from a poem: ‘Man does not have a harbor, time does not have shores; it flows and we pass!’”

Felder’s eyes sparkled. “You’ve done all that sitting on a stump in your back yard. How times have changed.” His eyes fell on the sundial. If it was right, it was half-past V. “It’s been fun!” he yelled, and flew home to check on his baked halibut.

©2010 Pam Wells