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Rhonda Soullier lives and works in south western Canada. She received two fine arts degrees from the University of Victoria and has been producing paintings for several years with a heavy emphasis on process. She recently began her journey as a writer and has a reoccurring column with a small quarterly and has also written criticisms for an art magazine. Her main focus now is on a series of writings concerning her own story and her family's story.

Connie and Her Invisible Man by Rhonda Soullier

    Constance was her name, but, she preferred Connie.  She had ears that stuck out and forearms like Popeye the sailor man.  Her life was lived on 20 feet of oxygenated lead.  Connie had smoked herself into an oxygen mask, emphezema down in her lungs and cancer knocking at the door waiting to get in.  Connie was a woman of many words and she had some stories.
Connie haled from the dust bowl of Canada and that was Manitoba.  She had danced her way through the dirty thirties a mop and bucket in one hand and an empty dance card in the other. Much of her story line had to do with being told and retold how plain she was, while her sister Evangeline was considered the beauty.
Evangeline was even more petit than Connie and perfect in her fair complexion and immaculate form, she had a perfectly oval face and pretty features clung to it with determination until she dropped dead prematurely from her wild life. The boys of their small Manitoba town liked to take Evangeline out to the barn dance Saturday nights get her drunk and cop a feel.  She got to like it, but, it made her mean and bitter and so she let Connie wait on her, make her breakfast, clean her clothes and sew her new dresses for the dances.   Connie bore the brunt of her raw humor.  Evangeline didn't have to be gracious she was hot.
    In those days on the dirt poor prairie, there was skant in door plumbing  and Connie had to empty chamber pots and chase bed bugs.  There was a picture of her when she was young with her sleeves rolled up hand on one hip and the other hand with an old tin bucket slung over it,  she wore a pair of men's rubber  boots.  Otherwise, she was dark and mysterious and the arrangement of her features produced a provocative drama.  The lone prairie left its' mark on Connie and her sister made sure all of her comfort was cold.  It was Connie's good nature that carried her through and she had heart.
    The two girls came from good English stock and both of their parents were stout.  The family lived in two boxcars pushed together end to end with a little breezeway constructed between them.  Two woodstoves heated the coaches and they had fine old interiors with extravagant brass fittings.  The boxcars were set off the track and they had their own plot of dust where depending on the wind conditions Connie and her family could watch the tumble weeds of an evening sail past the windows.
    Connie's dad was a railroad man and kept a hot temper.  He wore suspenders and a belt to keep his pants up, the waistband nothing more than a
formality - the pants fit him like a tea cozy, nice and loose around his teapot middle.
She had an older brother who liked to sit on his ass and drink and watch his sister dust the boxcar, build fences, plant vegetables and make home-made bread.  Her mother had a bleeding condition and eventually died from complications of that disease.
And on that very day the family scattered, Evangeline moved  in with one of her beaux, Constance took a job as a nanny and both men of the family
invested their energies in corn liquor.
It wasn't a pretty picture and Connie was the old maid, now in her mid thirties she was a seasoned scullery and story teller, an avid smoker and a good dancer.  
When she went to the barn dances she would dance with the old fellas and the married men and she learned to accept solitude as her lot.  Connie never turned to drink and maintained her love of people and cooking, flowers, animals and pretty chatchkas.  Connie could be put down, but, she would never stay down.
One warm summer Saturday evening as the sun was going down, radiant colors on the horizon,  Connie was feeling kind of pretty in her new home made dress
as she hurried along the railway ties going to the dance.  The prairie so flat that she could neither look down to watch the ties as she sped over them nor could she look up and search the landscape for a vertical for she would surely reel and fall over.  She could hear the distant fiddle music in her head and the Hungarian man from the restaurant in town calling the dances.  She fairly skipped along the way and kept her joyful spirit at thirty five, happy in her old maid kind of way.
    This is the part of the story Connie liked to retell, now, an old woman sipping oxygen, she crossed her lags in a certain way, her body in good shape
from all the years of hard labour.
    She said, "As I was walking along past the grain elevator going down around the general store a man in uniform tapped me on the shoulder, he appeared out of nowhere and asked me if I was going to the dance and he smiled at me and said he'd see me around.  "  Connie added that the man was very
handsome and tall with nice manners.
        "One minute he was walking beside me and the next he was gone,  I'd thought he ducked into the pool hall or something and never thought
        a thing about it.  The next week I was doin a shift at the Chinese Restaurant in town and in walks this serviceman back from the war.  And it
        was him!"  she exclaimed,  'the man I saw on the railroad tracks a week earlier."  And she added the last part with a sence of wonder.
His eye caught Connie jostling a plate of ribs, she saw him looking and met his stare; she had no time to be coquettish, and what was he lookin at anyhow.
Her sister happened to be in the cafe at supper hour letting one of her dates buy her noodles to sweeten the deal later on at the dance.  Evangeline skurried out of her booth to show him her walk.  He took a look and saw her for the eggrole she was and knew that Connie was the main course.  Connie later married the good looking service man who was ten years her junior and the best catch in that crazy little town.
What Connie was really saying in the end tethered to her oxygen tank was that her man was full of magic and somehow he knew her before he met her.

    Mr. Evenson the angel man had a devil of a time convincing Connie to be his bride, because by then she believed she was unloveable and not worth
much.  This was a small town romance  and most everybody she knew mocked and hated her for it.  They liked her in her place and this was simply to good  
  for the rawboned Connie who brought them food, and cleared their tables, loved and cared for their children and took their guff.
    The wedding was attended by noone.  And they had to leave that town and leave their families behind.  The went to live on the margins.  And mostly
settled in towns along the border of Saskatchewan and Alberta.  He took what work he could and they lived on love and cigarettes.  Connie kept whatever
home they had immaculately, her children clean and fed and life went on like that for several years - on the edge.  She always managed to keep a tin of Fry's
cocoa around, and she'd make her and him hot chocolate at the end of a day to make up for no lunch, no breakfast, and no supper.  Tragedy hit Connie's
family just like it hits everyone's now and again, she'd lost a child along the way and there was no shortage of bitter disappointments.
Mr. Evenson died some years before I met Connie of lung cancer and she layed down with him till he took his last breath and smoked his last smoke.

    Connie was a collector of collector plates and so she had a set with the four seasons, a plate for each.  A series of kitty cats and puppy dogs and
one for pretty ladies.  I spent time with Connie turning the oxygen up and watching the soaps and helping her with her crosswords.  
    Eventually Connie took a turn for the worse - she'd finally opened the door and let the cancer in.  She was a  lucid woman and that's why I found it odd,
when I began to hear her talking to someone when I wasn't in the room.  I asked her one day "Who ya talkin to Connie?" but, I already had my suspisions.
One day toward the end she handed me her wedding ring and said nothing - just fixed her eyes on the bedroom wall like it was a summer sunset
 on the Manitoba prairie.
Her two daughters didn't understand what was happening to their mother, so they would come over and talk to me when death started to hang around the
place.  We would stand on the balcony which sort of hung in the chestnut trees as the apartment was three flights up and I would talk about the death of Connie .  We  watched the wild budgies lodging in the tree, trilling and swooping through the branches, displaced tropical colours whirling in this foreign landscape.  Tiny birds forced to abandon their familiar cages and  put out into chilly air when the landlord found out their owners were keeping a pet.

    It seemed to me as I looked in on Connie from time to time as she was winding her life down, she was never alone and I would find her sitting on her
loveseat leaning over and speaking in confidential tones to noone visible.  I could have sworn I saw Mr. Evenson down on one knee, hand extended toward
Mrs. Evenson more than once.  In my dreamy world of living with the ghosts and goblins who were the history makers in my life and the heaviness they left
behind,  I got to share a new kind of bond with Connie and her invisible man.

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