Hubbard was one of the oldest no-account towns on the coast of Oregon. Men there fished commercially or helped others deep-sea fish for sport; they worked in the woods cutting timber, or they worked in the mill over in Sawyer, making paper amidst a great noise and stink. They lived hard, bore scars, coveted danger and died either young and violently or unnecessarily old. The women worked, or not. The children belonged to them.
Hubbard was one of those places where you could still have your choice of oceanfront trailers--old rusting aqua and silver tunafish cans with moisture problems. Highway 101, the West's westernmost route from Canada to Mexico, was the town's only through street, a straight and single shot lined with gift shops and candy shops and kite shops and a Dairy Queen, shell art and postcards and forty-six flavors of saltwater taffy, homemade right here. There was everywhere a spirit of cheer, clutter and nakedly opportunistic goodwill: what Hubbard had it would happily sell you, and if you didn't see it, just ask. Everyone loved a tourist, and the fatter the cat, the better. To a point. The locals maintained their own entrances to the Dairy Queen, Anchor Grill and Wayside Tavern: unmarked doors around back by the service entrances, where there was no parking problem.
In this town, beautiful even if no-account, lived two women, old friends, Petie Coolbaugh and Rose Bundy. Rose was a big, soft woman of calm purpose and measurable serenity. Petie was small and hard and tight and flammable, like the wick of a candle. They were both thirty-one, and ever since grade school had been celebrating good times, hunkering down in lean ones, hiding truths from each other's families, sitting up with each other's babies. In the last six weeks they had also become business partners. They made soup for a living now.
Two months ago a cafe and coffeehouse had come to Hubbard by way of a brother and sister, fraternal twins from Southern California who'd had the idea of coming north to slow down. They had bought the old barbershop at one end of town and moved in tables and church pews and giant green ferns. They bought crockery dishes, an espresso machine, quilted tablecloths and posters for the walls. They sanded the old fir floors and built a mahogany counter of great beauty and grace. They installed a tiny kitchen, named the place Souperior's, and then, instead of hiring a cook, they held auditions.
Bring your best soup (they invited all of Hubbard, on index cards in city hall, the post office and the Quik Stop) to Souperior's next Saturday afternoon. Winners get on our menu. Grand winner gets a job offer.
Although Hubbard loved its tourists, resident newcomers were a source of suspicion. For a week or so the little index cards--tacked up fresh and bright among the curling notices about firewood and crab pot repairs and handmade dog figurines--excited a lot of comment, most of it skeptical. On the other hand, an invitation to compete against your neighbors didn't come along often except for the county fair, and in the end, sixty-four soups were entered in the contest and were judged during an open house and soup-feed by the cafe's owners, Nadine and Gordon Latimer. Petie and Rose won with a jointly submitted bottomfish stew born of desperation the year Eddie Coolbaugh broke his foot and couldn't work for three months. A fisherman Rose had been dating then had fed them all from the junkfish left behind on a sportfishing charter boat. Two more of Rose's soups also made it onto the menu. When she was offered the job of soup cook, she asked if she and Petie could share it. The deal was that they would supply the cafe with two fresh soups each day, Tuesday through Sunday, and they could work from home. Breads came from the Riseria in Sawyer; Nadine handled the salads herself. Every day the soups would be different until the menu was exhausted and they could start again. New soups would always be under consideration.
Rose had been working at the time as a waitress for the Anchor Grill, 3 a.m. to noon shift--a job from which she'd come and gone for years. Bad hours, good tips. Petie had been cleaning motel rooms at the Sea View Motel: bad wages, good people, good location. In either case, cooking sounded better and the money was only slightly worse. Plus as long as they could stand a steady diet of soup, they could feed their families for free.
The Coolbaughs lived in a shabby little rental on the north side of town, on a dead-end road called Heyter Place. The house was old and had been no good to start with, but Petie knew how to put a good front on things. Small, exquisite watercolors hung on the walls: still lifes of balloons and baby toys; wildflowers and action figures; cooking utensils, bouquets of keys. She'd painted the kitchen walls and ceiling brilliant white with lemon yellow trim, and even the sickly sun of winter seemed to try a little harder there. Now, in robust late September, the cheap white curtains were so saturated with light they seemed incandescent.
While Petie diced fifty carrots, Rose read aloud from the weekly newspaper about old Billy Wall, who had just been indicted on sodomy charges.
"You know what I think? Hand me that peeler." Petie weighed it thoughtfully in her hand, then pointed it at Rose. "I think if he did what those kids say he did, the guy deserves to have a bad thing happen to him. I mean worse than shame and a jail term. I mean something bad. They should take him just like you'd take a carrot, and peel him down real slow, you know, real careful, layer by layer until you've got him peeled naked as an egg, and then you bring him to Hubbard Elementary and you lock him in the gym with twenty mothers with baseball bats. You put some Gatorade in there, and some high-nutrition snacks, and maybe have an alternate or two who can substitute when one of the women gets tired." She traded Rose the peeler for a paring knife. "The son of a bitch."
For several minutes Petie's knife made sharp regular reports like gunshots on the cutting board. She had thick, strong, shiny black hair--Indian hair, although she was no part Indian--that she'd tied back from her face with an old rolled-up bandanna. Stuffed under it were some straggly ends, old bangs. She was always trying to grow out old bangs or some other hair fiasco. Once, Rose remembered, she had bleached out a central stripe in her hair. She'd looked strange as a skunk with the jet black running up against the peroxide yellow with no warning and no apology. That was back in high school, in their freshman year. Petie's mother had died four years before, and she and her father were living up at the top of Chollum Road in a twelve-foot camp trailer. Old Man Tyler had always been mean, but after Petie's mother died and he had to declare bankruptcy, he'd been even worse. But as far as Rose could tell, even before Petie's mother died, the only time Old Man Tyler had really paid attention to her was when he was yelling at her; otherwise, he took no notice. Petie swore she didn't own a dress until she was twelve, and by then it was too late to get a feel for them. She'd have gotten married in pants if she'd had her way, but Eddie Coolbaugh had balked so she was married in a homemade lace sheath Eula Coolbaugh made for her, a dress that showed how essentially boy-shaped Petie was. And how small. Everyone thought she was bigger, including Rose. In her own way, she took up a lot of space.
"What are you thinking about?" Petie said, scraping the cut carrots into a big plastic Tupperware container to use tomorrow morning.
"That time you bleached your hair out."
Petie chuckled. "I looked just like a skunk."
"That's what I was thinking. I never thought it bothered you, though. You didn't show it."
"Of course I didn't show it. I didn't tell anyone Old Man beat me over it, either."
"Well, he was drunk."
"Then again, you never really knew, with Old Man. Chances are, he would have beaten me anyway."
"What do you think will happen to those boys Billy Wall messed with? I've heard kids don't recover from something like that, ever. Do you think that's possible, that those poor kids have been ruined?"
Petie shrugged. "I don't know. They'll grow up. They'll date, they'll make stupid choices. At some point they'll realize their lives aren't nearly as good as the ones they expected. Same old same old. Everyone's ruined somewhere along the line."
Rose started to laugh. "Oh, Petie."
"Really. Sooner or later something terrible's always going to come along. It's really just a question of timing."
Rose took the carrot peeler and started scraping potatoes, a small mountain of them, into the sink. "Something terrible like what happened to those boys is not going to happen to everyone, Petie. My God."
"Of course not. It could even be something that seems like not much--moving to another town, say, or having bad acne or liking beer too much. Or it could be something quiet like hopelessness or boredom. No one ever said that ruin always comes in a big loud package."
Rose watched Petie tear apart some sprigs of parsley and toss them into one of the pots. "Well, I'm thinking I might start driving Carissa to school."
"Does she worry about the trip?" Petie stirred some heavy cream into one of the pots.
"Does she complain about having to wait after school?"
"So she's a smart kid. She can take care of herself. Stir." Petie put her spoon in Rose's hand.
"You worry about the boys," Rose pointed out, stirring.
"I worry about Ryan. I fear for Loose. There's a difference."
Five-year-old Loose Coolbaugh (short for Lucifer, although even that wasn't his real name) was a fearless, physical kid: he would hit before he'd concede he was wrong. His playground daredeviltry had already made him, in less than a month, an object of admiration in his first grade class. He'd been to the emergency room over in Sawyer twice in just that time period: once for a minor concussion when he swung into thin air off the monkey bars, once for stitches in his hand from an old can he'd systematically broken apart with a rock.
Ryan, on the other hand, was frail and suffered for it. At eight years old, he still had frequent asthma attacks, night fears and daytime dreads: large dogs, sneaker waves, public toilets, physical contests. He was also bookish, which no one in the family could fathom. Loose needled him mercilessly, and often got the upper hand. Eddie Coolbaugh used to push him to try harder, be bolder, cry less often, but since Loose had come along Eddie had lost interest. Petie and Rose often took turns bringing Ryan along on after-school errands, just to give him a break from the household. Petie protected him when she could, but she admitted to Rose more than once that she didn't exactly get the point of him, either.
"I think this is ready," Rose said. "It's getting late. We better go." Petie was cutting Rose's scraped potatoes and stowing them in a Tupperware container filled with water, for the morning. The finished corn chowder on the stove was one of their favorites. The other vat was lentil, a recipe of Rose's that wasn't even on the Souperior's list. The soup was supposed to have been vegetable barley, but Petie refused to fix anything submitted by Jeannie Fontineau. Jeannie Fontineau was nothing but a sad-eyed fat woman now, but she had fooled around with Eddie Coolbaugh a little bit years ago, before she got so fat but after he and Petie were married. Jeannie Fontineau wasn't the only one Eddie had ever fooled around with, but she was the first, and that made her stand out. Nadine would be mad about the soup substitution, but they'd just tell her something.
Petie stowed the Tupperware container in the refrigerator and said, "You call Nadine and tell her we're on our way. I'll load the car." The vats of soup were too hot and too heavy for either of the women to carry, so Eddie Coolbaugh had rigged up a table-high dolly for them, and a ramp down the two steps outside. From there they just slid the vats into the back of Petie's old Ford Colt. Together they jockeyed the huge pots onto the dolly and out the kitchen door. Petie disappeared down the ramp while Rose dialed. It was ten-thirty in the morning; Souperior's started serving lunch at eleven. Nadine answered on the first ring.
"You're pushing it, you guys," she said when she heard Rose's voice. She sounded unusually testy; Rose guessed it was a migraine day.
"Petie's got the engine running. Corn chowder and lentil."
"Where's the vegetable barley?"
"We got a deal on salt pork, so we switched. Does it matter? Did you publish the menu in the paper?"
"As it happens, the ad doesn't start until next week. But I'd like to have known. You should have asked me. I'm the owner. You're the employees."
"You sound like you have a headache."
"I have late soup, is what I have. Give me a break, Rose."
"We'd be there already if we weren't talking."
Nadine sighed. "You're both taking advantage of me."
"Yes," Rose said, "but we're completely supportive. Look for us in five minutes." Rose retrieved the empty dolly and closed the kitchen door behind her, smiling. She'd just been kidding about a newspaper ad.
Souperior's turned its back on the highway to moon westward from the high and rocky rim of Hubbard Bay. Petie remembered when the shambly little place had been the barbershop and all the Hubbard men had looked alike because old Walt Miller hadn't gone to barber school up in Portland yet to learn a second way to cut hair. Petie's father used to hang around the place half plowed making a pest of himself, especially after her mother died and they lost the house and had to move into the camp trailer up at the top of Chollum Road. Old Man was a contentious drunk; sometimes Walt had had to sneak out of his own shop to get away and call her to come get him. Once, while Walt wasn't looking, her father had taken his little buck knife and carved into the shop's doorjamb, I got fucked in '74. JST. That was the year her mother's uninsured hospital bills came to seventy-five thousand dollars and she died anyway. Walt had sanded most of the message away, but he'd left the JST as an expression of sympathy. Although the initials had been covered over with a few coats of paint by now, Petie could still feel a faint depression with her fingertips.