Soup Savoring Reconstruction:
Work and the Word
A Review of CLS Ferguson’s
Soup Stories: A Reconstructed Memoir
(Portage Press, 2017)
My first real job was washing dishes in a restaurant. I had been cutting grass and babysitting for several years, but washing dishes was real. The paycheck was an actual check, I had a schedule, and I was paying taxes. I rolled a Volkswagen van while driving home from a soccer tournament I was refereeing just after I started that gig, but that is both another job and another story. I took another post washing dishes a year later. The restaurant was smaller, so I was able to do some prep cooking, and it was French, allowing me to speak some French with the mother of the owner, who made the best mousse au chocolat I have ever had. I stayed there for four years, and what I learned there augmented what I learned in school. Indeed, while many of us grow up in school, so many more of us actually mature through work. CLS Ferguson’s memoir, Soup Stories: A Reconstructed Memoir, published in the early summer of 2017 through Portage Press, is an extended exploration of the decade she spent with Souplantation, the restaurant chain. Although founded in Southern California in 1978, Souplantation now has stores in a number of states, and Ferguson worked at restaurants in both California and Arizona. During the time Ferguson was working at Souplantation, she graduated from high school and earned both her undergraduate and graduate degrees. Ferguson has a Ph.D. in Communication and teaches, but she does all sorts things in addition, including producing, acting, singing, voice work, modeling, public speaking, and writing (across multiple genres). The dedication in the front reads: “this book is for all of my Souplantation loves, including the me I once was.” Although this is a memoir, “reconstructed,” as indicated in the title, Ferguson in Soup Stories is also writing a bildungsroman—a book that tackles maturation and education—but she does so in a Frankensteinean blend of genres, featuring short stories as well as poetry. Ferguson is a success story, and her book is timely in light of the gig economy and the growing awareness of the problem of labor in the twenty-first century. As increasing numbers of us start out, get moved to, and end up as contingency workers everywhere, I find this work particularly important now.
Some of my favorite moments in Soup Stories are the poems. Each chapter is short, often but a page, and rarely over two or three, which makes for easy reading. Take this book with you, and enjoy it in pieces, on the train or the bus. Here’s a poem, for example, entitled “My Crush on My First General Manager at the Souplantation”:
As a new greeter
I watched him walk to his car
Every day I yearned (38)
The brevity is brilliant in relation to the everyday experience of watching, from one’s assigned spot, the object of affection come and go. Yearning is a momentary experience, but it is also one that can be experienced time and again. Some, in fact, relish the experience of long term suffering; think rear view mirror romance and serial dating. Moreover, yearning is something we learn to get through. The job space then serves as the location for a romantic education of sorts. Ferguson’s long-term romance, Robert, spans the novel, but not her life. Back to the poem, the brevity of yearning is also linked to movement; the crush is observed walking to his car, and the car in the life of the American teen is the embodiment of desire. Cars provide youth time alone, the freedom to travel, and the opportunity to experience physical desire with another human being, free of interruption from parents and friends.
“Most High School Students’ Last Shift at Souplantation” is another victory:
Walking out the front door
Carrying cases of beer
And boxes if wine (112)
These are the shortest of Ferguson’s poems, but two of my favorites. The last shift poem reminds me of the darker side of those educational experiences at work. The idea of and the acquisition of alcohol looms large in adolescent minds and the brazen departure via the “front door” signifies teenage rebellion.
Another kind of poem Ferguson wields well is the list poem, like “How I Acquired My No Married Men Policy,” with its eleven reasons. Similarly, “How We Celebrated Six Months,” which only includes six items, ends with the lingering “6. His mom had a talk with us. (She probably still thinks we had sex.)” (63). That talk, as the reader can only imagine, must have been uncomfortable, and even more so on the eve of the six month celebration.
Suggestions of sex, confrontations with parents, denial: experiences like this, central to teenage maturation, rebellion, and growth, are also part of the work space, above and beyond school. Working provides teens freedom, money, and time alone, even if it’s usually fairly well wrapped up in the job. Work is matter of money, class, and culture, and there are several terrific moments when these things collide hysterically. “Buenísima” is one. Speaking Spanish is helpful when you live in Southern California, and Ferguson speaks Spanish with the dishwashers, who regularly ask: “¿Còmo estás?” A young Ferguson keeps using “buenísima” to describe how great she feels, “¡Buenísima!” (35). Ramon, one of the dishers eventually pulls her aside to explain that “buenísima” means great, “But in a sexual way” (35). Ferguson never uses the expression again. “My Big Mouth” offers an educational experience involving class, water cups, and the elderly. “Salad Tosser” is an hysterical yarn on urban slang and aging. Ferguson navigates these slippery educational experiences with aplomb and deft humor.
Trouble manifests in the downtimes, the inbetweens, or the loose ends. One of the problems in this piece is depth, as the short stories, poems, essays, lists sometimes leave us wanting much more. The assemblage of pieces provides moments of comedy, trauma, joy, contentment, knowledge, and growth, yet a more cohesive structure would allow for more engagement. “Brush with Death,” for example, touches on the dangers of drinking, but merely touches. The story ends: “One would think this might make me stop drinking. I only stopped dating that dude” (115). “Meth,” a piece featured here in Red Savina Review in the fall of 2016, raises drugs and addiction, only to wrap them up and dismiss them as a dream: “My entire love affair with meth had been imagined” (58). Time-travelling, in the bathroom with the bad girl, is smart, but when the issues keep popping up, it feels like more exploration is needed. There is a haunting element here, too, in that part of Ferguson’s story is a rape that is alluded to a number of times but most clearly represented early on in “Rain Sweet Rain.” “Phil the Magician” is another, more explicit account, of rape. This time, the fleshing out of Phil makes for a more compelling read. Men need to read stories like this to know what no looks like and what no means. Again, Ferguson’s work is timely. I am reminded of the recent #MeToo campaign and our greater awareness of sexual crime and predation in these troubling times. Ferguson moves through what was done to her, without a doubt, and she succeeds, but the horror flitters across these pages intermittently, ghost-like. As a whole, this is a work of poignant humor and delight. Ferguson is mining the rich space of working youth for terrific educational experiences. Nostalgia is a given with this genre, but there is a lot of fun to be had here, too. You don’t need to have worked in a restaurant as a teen to savor Ferguson’s captivating words in Soup Stories; you just have to pick it up.
—Reviewed by Booke Carlson