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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.

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 camera.

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 green kind.

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.

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