|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.
Skunk Hollow and Uncle Hugh's Fish Bowl by Rhonda Soullier
Norma Jean and I moved to the island and into
grannies beach glass bungalow located far away from the prairie and the foul
temper of my father. There I met my first and truest friend, a dog named
Dingo. Dingo was some kind of terrier, the
kind that skips and skitters through it's life always managing to find a
kitchen floor or vacant pavement to tap dance
along. I can't say I cuddled Dingo or fell
in love with him at all or let him eat off my plate.
It was more that in a time of high surrealism, where all the colours
were a little too bright, he was perfectly ordinary.
The landscape was unbelievable to my young eyes that summer
at my grandparent's house and so was Norma Jeans'
movie star family .
My grandmother Lillian with her porceline skin and flaming red hair was
Tahlula Bankhead, her husband Art was definately Humphry Bogart, uncle Bill
was Ernest Hemmingway, Norma Jean was ofcourse playing herself, Uncle Jim was
a ballroom dancer and a collector of pistols and he was very Paul
Newman. Uncle Bud was a 1950's comic book hero
only he wasn't any Captain Marvel, he was more the quintesential Clark Kent -
khaki pants and horned rimmed glasses a man of his generation and that left
Uncle Hughey - the dark horse, Uncle Hugh's face bore the scars of an inner
crucifiction and sorrow. Hughey was the drunk, he
was James Dean without the big Hollywood break.
Uncle Hugh got no respect because he was a lush.
And his brother from the Captain Marvel magazine hoisted him out of the
gutter on skid row and rushed him into rehab every decade or
so. Uncle Bud thought that his brother drank
because he had a love affair with the booze, he didn't understand that Uncle
Hugh was isolated and lost.
My mother's name sake Marilyn Munroe had made a film called the Misfits and in
the movie more than anything a pathos emerged and
despite their best efforts using all their celebrity my mother's family was
hung with a veil of depression and there was no Clark Gable around to show
them how to not give a damn. They were overcommers
and had all risen out of the ashes, that is all
but Uncle Hugh. They were survivors of an early
childhood growing up in a very funky landscape called Skunk Hollow in East
Vancouver. I asked my mother one day why they
called it Skunk Hollow and she said because the only thing that would grow
there were skunk cabbages. The air reeked of them
in the steaming heat of the summers.
Bogey drank all the
money he made from his machinist trade and the children seldom had enough
food. The ironies were piled thick and high for
they were hungry kids and got to smell the bog of inedible skunk cabbages
cooking all summer long in the blistering heat.
Tahlula sharpened her knives in their scabby kitchen because if she'd
had a dollar she could make a marvelous meal out of it.
She had fabulous culinary skills.
At some point Bogey put down the bottle and took a look around his family and
noticed the scaring his lawless appetite for drink had done
. Finally Tahlula went to the market for fresh
meat and poultry and took to buying her vegetables from an old man in a very
old truck who came right round to the door.
Tahlula bought rhinestone cigarette holders to smoke her home made
rolies in. She made salmon loaf, and black bottom
pudding, pork roasts and apple pies. There was
neopolitan ice cream and scalloped potatoes made with evaporated milk, and
real irish stew. The table was groaning everyday with cream
pies, and salads of every discription
and in the end all the
movie stars amazed each other with their conservative successes and their good
lives, all except Uncle Hugh.
Uncle Hugh was a vagrant of the most romantic sort.
All of my mother's family were good looking and they all resembled
movie stars and Uncle Hugh was no exception. He
had a lustrous head of auburn hair and a soulful silence that easilly upstaged
the boisterous performances of his siblings. They were all good dancers and
moved around their individual dance floors with an easy grace in lush costumes
of tweed and silk, cotton twill and organza.
They became what they wanted to be, despite a father who drank all
their innocense. My grandfather was the downtown
equivelant of Humphrey Bogart riding the little ferry from North Van to East
Hastings of a Saturday morning sipping a cocktail of methyl alcohol and milk
on the ten minute ride, and by the time the tiny boat docked he was
loaded. And on those occassions, those appalling
saturdays, my mother would bring along Clark Kent and Paul Newman. It was
acting of the mannerist school and Uncle hugh was not in the cast, but rather
it seemed he got to be the boom boy or sound engineer.
He had no role to play, Uncle Hughey never got in front of the
My mother a small girl herself held the plump
hands of her movie star brothers tiny bit part players though they were and
followed their teetering dad through the scariest part of downtown Vancouver
at week's end each and every week. Norma Jean
never let on that any of them ever met with foul play left as they were to
hang around the back door of whatever drinking hole Bogey staggered out
of. She said they were always safe.
Eventually all the little stars made good, Clark Kent got a degree from Oregon
State University, Paul Newman got one from UBC and Ernest Hemmingway developed
a love for cats and took over the family business.
Norma Jean took very good care with her appearance and married my
father a real scene stealer. Uncle Hughey married
noone and realized no ambition. He didn't
understand that all of his battles were won and lost on the
inside. Instead he was the disenfranchised, the
rejected, and the embarrassment. Where the others
grew character Uncle Hugh grew a sponge to sop up the rivers of cheap wine he
drank to take the edge off.
Midway through life Humphrey Bogart discovered the secret to real happiness
and began to build a credit rating. His aim was to
buy a family bungalow to welcome in his children and grandchildren - it was a
tour de force in denial. It was a small house, it
came with one bedroom and my grandfather built a second one in the form of an
extension off the back of the little home. He
liked to fly by the seat of his pants and used ingenuity to build the new
section as opposed to a silly old foundation any common builder might start
with. After some time the second bedroom began to
sag a bit and moisture crept in. It was meant for
guests and it was the room that Norma Jean and I stayed in when we escaped the
heavy restrictions of my father. I would lay awake
at night in that room black as pitch and smelling like freshly mowed green
grass, the lawn teasing it's way up through the floor joices, waiting for my
mother to come home. First I would smell the acrid
aroma of her cigarette and then I could see the pilot light on the end of her
smoke signalling that Marilyn Munroe was coming in for a
landing. It was there when the moment hung and I
would lose time and space and fly to the end of that cigarette like Tinker
Bell and make myself like nothingness, and pray
for fairytale tomorrows.
Bogey built a guest house in the back yard for Hughey, it was only big enough
for a single bed and no bigger. It was a tiny
building with a big picture window and a flower box and grandad had added some
ornamentation that made the whole thing look like a ginger bread house come
fish bowl. Uncle Hugh would navigate his minimal
quarters in full view of the good actors in the family, so he could be watched
like he was on television. Here Uncle Hugh
was kept until like a lemming he responded to a mysterious call and hurried
away to the skid row of Vancouver to live out his father's legacy.
The summer Iarrived at Tahlula's and Bogeys' bungalow seemed like the hottest
and brightest of my lifetime. When the sun hit the
house the effect was dazzling and hypnotic. The
yard was full of hybrid fruit trees, 2 cherries, 2 plums, a winter king apple,
2 pear trees, blackberries and raspberries, all tangled up and rubbing up
against each other in the back yard. Tahlulah had
a clothesline darting accross the backyard one end off the beguiling cottage
the other attached to James Dean's fish bowl cabana in the back
yard. My grandmother seldom went outside, she was
too pale and cool and didn't like the warmth of the sun on her skin and would
teeter precariously on the end of the imaginary back porch and gingerly string
her delicates out on the clothesline, the ash from her home made smoke
free-falling off the end of her cigarette holder. The front yard of the house
was overwhelming, roses and rhodo's, giant daisys,and willow
trees. Grandad had a double lot and had also
bought the house next door with it's big lot and huge willow
tree. Noone trimmed the willows and their
gracefull limbs would woo little children in under a dreamy canopy of cinnibar
green. There we'd lay
on our backs and let our imaginations fly up through the ladders of branches
up up in to the great blue beyond. The roots of
the great willow had bumped their way up through the green grass making
cradles in the earth. And in that wholesome way
children have of ransacking their environment we'd tear the slim branches off
that swept the ground and make blankets and costumes out of them and so there
we would lie wrapped in the arms of the giant willow and laying in the cradle
she'd provided, and we'd dream in safety. I grew
to love the music the tree would make as the winds would shift, parts of the
tree would make a melody as the leaves were moved by the
breeze. On occassion in the summer a very windy
day would come around and I would run away to my secret place under the willow
cocooned in a blanket of gentle arms and listen to a full orchestra of the
It was always me who would go to the freezer with
James Dean for the neopolitan ice cream and on occassion I would walk with him
along the railway tracks not far from our house.
On these meandering silent trudges both of us would share his blanket
of sorrow. And then one day Uncle Hugh would just
disappear and then he'd come around when he was short of
cash. Soon his visits were non existant as the
booze ate him up. I'd gone to see Uncle Hugh
because Clark Kent and Ernest Hemmingway said he was not long for this world
and I felt relief for my Uncle Hughey and went to the halfway house to see him
off. My mother and her
celebrity brothers wore their yoke of tragedy
which read like a lovely waltz when they got together branded as they were
with that kind of grace.
Uncle Hugh wore his grace like it belonged to someone else, it seemed to me
everything he had always belonged to someone else, or what he had got taken
away from him. He was teased mercillously and the
little movie stars liked to push him around. Then
Hughey turned inward and so my mother Norma Jean says.
Tahlula was a bit of a scorceress in her way and liked to air her
bitterness and rage out by telling terrifying truisms to small
children. Hughey sopped up
the mess without
complaining. Tahlula always took the call
when Uncle Hugh phoned in from skid row with one
of his stories and she'd quietly go to the drawer where the guilty money was
kept to send Hughey off more cash.
One thing I know for
sure that hearts broke for Uncle Hugh in the end and he'd said his good byes
in the quiet way.
Norma Jean has only Paul Newman's hand to hold now, as the curtain came down
some time ago for James Dean, Ernest Hemmingway, Clark Kent, Tahlula Bankhead,
and Humphry Bogart. Heaven is a cool
cool place called
Skunk Hollow, where Tahlula has real gems in her cigarette holder and
the cabbages grow as big as automobiles good enough to eat.
End - Return to... Creative Studios Literary Magazine