These Are the Things
by Kyle R M
Before the boat, Jami was committed to becoming well read. She thought it would make her conversations more interesting, which she thought would help with finding a job. So she read Gatsby. Not the book, just the last line. She read it over and over and over until it was committed, inaccurately, to her memory. She would reach for an orange from my hanging fruit basket, weigh it in her hand as though judging the radiance of its skin and quote, “… so we all float on…” Once we went to a barbeque at my brother’s house and Jami took his wife, Lynn, to the laundry room where they shot too much tequila, each time clinking their glasses together while Jami said, “Gatsby never stopped at the green lights.” It took Jami four tries to get through the first hour and a half of Moby Dick, the movie version where Atticus Finch plays Captain Ahab. She did take a bubble bath with an illustrated children’s version of Huckleberry Finn and to my knowledge read it cover to cover. But that’s when she got the idea to build a boat.
Last Wednesday, Jami borrowed floodlights from my neighbor, Mitch, and now she works at night, in a buzzing dome of luminescence so sharp that Mitch hung black curtains over his bedroom window. First, he tried sleeping with the heavy duty earmuffs that lumberjacks wear to cancel the noise of their chainsaws, but then Mitch realized he slept better if he could hear the constant whir of Jami’s power tools (which are not actually hers, they’re also borrowed, from sources unknown to me). “Have you ever imagined sleeping on the tits of the fifty foot woman? You know, that old horror flick from the drive-in? That’s how I sleep, now, when I can hear her working out there. I sleep like I’m sprawled out on the immense knockers of a giant woman.” He told me this in my front lawn. Mitch was wearing a striped business shirt with a red tie and I was in my underwear, rolling out the garbage. My eyes were black with sleeplessness and I wanted to uppercut the teeth out of Mitch’s relaxed grin. “It’s like being swallowed by a king-sized water bed filled with heavy cream.”
Jami works through the sunlight to sunset and dusk, and at night my backyard ignites into a globe of electricity and sweat. The moths congregate around her as though she is the goddess of their glowing temple. A few of the neighborhood’s older residents once put in enough phone calls to the police station that an officer came by to ask Jami to kill the lights and stop her table saw. “Gettin’ late, sweetie. Why don’t we call it a day?” But Jami’s best feature is the charm of her obsessions. She removed her safety goggles and earplugs and guided the inquiring officers on a tour of the boat’s construction. She displayed her blueprints and equations. She explained her philosophy, her fascination, what she will do when the boat is finished. She never asked for a helping hand, but she got it, until an emergency call came over the radio and drug the cops away from Jami and her boat. Now, the police come regularly with cups of steaming coffee and a bag of glazed donut holes and samosas from the 24-hour donut shop a few blocks south of my house. I think the place is called Sannihit Sarovar Bakery. It’s run by a very nice family from India. The police ask Jami about her progress. They try to hand her things, or to hold the tape measure. They want to get back into the building of the boat. From the patio I ask them about the city’s crime wave, the one I hear so much about on the news. They puff air through their noses and ignore me.
Jami works until she is exhausted, too exhausted to come into the house. She pulls the extension cords from their sockets and the dome of luminescence huddled over my backyard goes black and Jami falls to sleep on the bench seat I unhitched from the back of her pickup and put on the tiny cement patio, next to her boat. When the morning is tickling from gray into sunrise, the air seems to hang in the space, fermenting the dew on the woodwork and the metal tools and in the yellow foam peaking through holes worn into the fabric seat she sleeps on. I boil water on the stove and pour it over green tea leaves. I drink it on the red folding chair next to the empty can where Jami pitches her cigarette butts. I watch her legs twitch in her sleep, like a dog that dreams of chasing cars. Strings of sweat bead on the back of her neck and shoulders and I steal one of the cigarettes from her pack, even though I quit smoking 14 months ago. I put it in my lips and light it and watch over all the things that fill my backyard now. I squint at it and study it. My mouth twitches as I take a rough mental inventory, pointing the cigarette like a finger with each tick of wind change.
When Jami was four, her father died of a heart attack. Not at home. They found his body, sizzling on the roof of a house that he was hired to shingle. It was the middle of October and a rogue heat wave set in, an Indian summer, that’s what got him. Also, he was drinking a lot more malt liquor than he was water. When the funeral was over, Jami’s mother skipped the mourning process and immediately transplanted her life and family on a spiritual co-op living off a self-sustaining farm somewhere in rural Kansas. Jami was homeschooled in various forms of art, witchcraft, and agricultural sciences. They were vegetarians. A small, instable group. “I got out as fast as I could,” she says. People always ask for more details, but Jami will only tell them, “No. I’m over it now.” Her mother is still in Kansas. On the same farm, mystically tied to the man who promised her new age salvation and cosmic unity. When Jami and I were drunk in El Paso, she told me that he looked like Jesus. “However you picture Jesus in your mind,” she said. “That’s how my stepdad looked.”
What I love about Jami is not related to the boat at all. The first time I saw her, she spat and said, “Fuck it,” with the most beautiful fluidity of motion. But she won’t do that anymore. She just spits. She won’t say “fuck it.” And I think it’s supposed to mean something, like how important this goddamn boat is to her. She can’t say “fuck it” to the boat. Last summer, we were sitting at a picnic table in Montrose Park. There was an old man, who was probably homeless, drinking something from a paper bag. He told us the story of how he thought the world would be in the next five, ten, and 25 years. He said that Jami would one day disappear—that he and I would never see her again.
Jami takes a mallet and a chisel and carves the significant symbols from her life into the bow and the mast. I watch her meticulous mechanics melt the wood, like ice, into intricate intimacies. Her first kill, an eight point buck. She was eleven and the back strap was chicken fried and fed to the entire rural commune. Her pickup truck. The dogs she owned. The moon. Her bicycle and surfboard. The boat is being folded into a baroque narrative. I watch her muscles tan and tighten as Jami’s story unfolds. She keeps a perpetual cigarette in her teeth and drinks cheap beer from clear bottles with the label torn off. The sun soaks into the liquid and makes it warm, but with every gulp, she savors the satisfaction of her work as though it is ice cold and refreshing.
“Well,” she says, pausing her labor for a breath of air. “All rivers lead to the ocean.” Her nose twitches and she pushes a sticky mat of her hair off her forehead while taking a swig of her beer. “I think. No. I’m pretty sure that’s true.”
“First off, you have no experience of life on water. You’ve never even been on a sailboat. You will get seasick. At some point. You will. If the river runs too shallow, you are not strong enough to tow it across by yourself. I have just settled into my job at the customer call center and I don’t think becoming an assistant manager is totally out of the question yet. You have spent zero time testing the job market and so you do not know for certain that you are unqualified for the work force. I think you would make a damn fine dishwasher. I do. And I mean, a damn fine dishwasher. Don’t forget, you are prone to obsessing over new projects and never seeing them through. What about the hermit crab farm? Do you remember how their bodies shriveled and dehydrated? So, you can understand that there is a bit of speculation on my end as to how committed you actually are to this boat project and your plan to float it out the river and into the Pacific. Not to mention, I have just bought a new surfboard and I do not think it has been properly broken in. You have no experience with deep sea fishing or sustaining an appropriate diet in open water. I have not seen you even once open the books which I bought for you on Memorial Day, meaning you have no grounding in oceanography or the patterns of currents or the process of measuring nautical distances. My lease on the house is not up for another four and a half months. And what about your love of cheap beer and cigarettes? How will you satisfy that, Jami, for fuck’s sake? How are you just going to leave me like this?”
“These are the things,” she says. She says it again, trying out the words on her tongue like licking an ice cream cone. Longer. Slower. “These. Are the things. These are the things. These are all things. All of the things. These. Are. The things.” And then she goes back to working with the carpenter’s file.
When Jami disappears, I will open a small art gallery in the warehouse district. It will be called, The Museum of Jami’s Shit. The cops and Mitch and the Indian family that make the donuts and a few stray dogs and cats that were once fed by her, these people will come. They will walk into an open space where they will be invited to pick through all of Jami’s things and better know her. But mostly it will be for me. I will sleep there when the gallery closes. I will smell her toothbrush and shake up the pieces in her junk drawer, reading from the articles like a shaman reading spilt bones. I will feel the sharp teeth of the key to her pickup truck. I will wake up in a puddle of her novelty vacation T-shirts. And I will let the children and the lonely adults and the forgetful grandparents each take a thing with them until the space becomes empty and Jami is gone for good.