Shingle Spit Road
There are two types of people: those who don’t mention their past, and those who won’t shut up about it. My father’s brother Vincent fell in with the first, so I’ll just tell you what I know.
Uncle Vincent, never Vince, traded college for the army and shipped out at twenty-one on peacekeeping missions in Croatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina. “It was hard on him,” my father said. After a brief stint hitching though Argentina, Uncle Vincent returned to his homeland. With the commercial vehicle licence he earned in the military, Uncle became a school bus driver on Hornby Island, British Columbia. About as far as you could get from anywhere.
Every summer vacation we’d drive up for Labour Day weekend. Uncle Vincent’s blue trim trailer, parked on an overgrown quarter-acre off Shingle Spit Road, felt cramped and dingy, the countertops and cupboards stained a sad, sallow yellow. A single shelf of books lined the dim, wood-panelled hallway. I once witnessed mother half tuck an envelope under one of the owl-shaped bookends: five hundred dollar bills.
“Vincent’s marriage collapsed,” said my father. It was a warning. We were on the ferry to Hornby Island, leaning against the upper deck guardrail with the sun on our backs, waiting for the horn to sound.
I think my father, in his reserved way, was trying to remind me to behave myself. Uncle Vincent didn’t cope well with additional sources of stress. But I took the statement as evidence of how fragile and hinging on disintegration everything was. There were no genuine failsafes, all of us just a guardrail away from toppling headfirst into the roaring blue abyss. A classmate had recently introduced me to the activist magazine Adbusters, and I had begun to view the world a shade or two darker than I used to, those foaming whirlpools of big pharma, corporation, and greed now visible just below the surface. I wondered if finances had factored into Uncle Vincent’s divorce.
My older cousins, Luce and Aimée, named by their Quebecois mother, visited intermittently, and even as teenagers they slept in bunk beds. We played Scrabble together, Uncle Vincent the arbitrator of recurrent disputes. I remember how Luce and Aimée would smirk after he penalized me, it was always me, for slipping in bogus words.
Uncle got by, even in the dry season, on a well out back. He took military showers and flushed the toilet with a red plastic pail. I remember clogging it once, real bad. Panicked, I poured down another pail, while Uncle bellowed at the door, “Amelia, we’re havin’ a water shortage, case you didn’t know!”
My turds swirled ‘round in circles like shameful carousel horses until the toilet bowl finally drained.
One visit, just after I’d aced my ninth grade exams, we were lolling round the picnic table beneath two ancient maples, their leaves a bold, bright green and big as your face. The adults drank pinot grigio that my mother had brought and chatted, only half-listening, about the lesser-off folks on the island.
“It’s because of capitalism,” I cut in. “Communist countries, like Cuba–”
“You don’t know about communism,” Uncle interrupted from across the table. “You don’t know a thing.”
The skin under his stubbly beard burned the same rouge that his ex-wife painted her lips. His eyes, cold, locked on to mine like an enemy target.
“What they teach you in school – well, what do they teach you?”
My parents – where were they? The two of them must have been present, but my memory of this moment is like a spotlight in the night sky. Only Uncle Vincent and I are illuminated.
I swallowed. “We’ve got to look out for each other. Look out for–”
“Listen,” Uncle interrupted, “you figure out what’s what.” His voice cut like a rusty ax that’s kept its edge. “And don’t ever let no one talk bullshit to you.”
Don’t trust me here on the details. My parents must have rematerialized, maybe my father topped up their glasses while I sulked away. I remember lying back in Luce’s top bunk, ceiling close overhead, reading Archie comics. With every page I turned, the contents of the previous faded, so I had to flip back in order to catch the punchline. Back and forth. Again, again. But I couldn’t grasp a word of it.