Selected for Best Australian Stories 2006
I NEVER DID find out what Jimmy saw in that meat – Jimmy's a weird one. All I know is he barges in and shouts: "Boris! We have just three days to eat this ham!"
Now, my name's Jake, not Boris, but Jimmy's never been too keen on details – they confuse him. You just gotta roll with the punches sometimes. Get this: he kicks open the door and staggers in with a giant knob of meat in his arms, holding it like a baby, oozing salty ham juice down the front of his flannelette shirt and glistening pink, like he'd rubbed it all over with hair gel. He never said why we had three days – I guess he meant it was going stale. He lugs it to the kitchen and slams it down on the table with a grunt and looks at me with that look he gets when he's stirred, which can unsettle folks: kinda lets foamy spittle hang around his beard, lips peeled back, teeth bared like knuckles cocked ready for a fist fight. When he gets like that, you just gotta keep your cool and let him know you're on his team – but don't say it outright, you gottademonstrate.
"Where in hell'd you get that meat?" I said, sounding mighty impressed – which was a mistake: he might've thought I wanted it for myself. Sure enough, he gets all defensive and throws his arms around it – and don't get me wrong, it was a mighty lump, quivering pink on the table like jelly, smooching ham slime over the daily paper (I was glad I'd already read the funnies). He stands there like I meant the meat harm, which I did – we were gonna eat it, weren't we?
"Hey, what's cooking Jimmy?" I say, backing up to show I didn't mean no harm.
"Cooking?" he says, and looks all confused. Next he glances out the window and says, "Go lock the door."
"Why?" I say. "You steal that meat?"
"Lock it!" he screams, so I shrug and lock the door, then drag the couch in front of it to kind of make the point that he was yelling at me for no reason, then I put the small dresser on top of the couch. Jimmy missed the point.
"Good," he says, nodding all grave-like. "Good thinking. I'll get the back door." Like it was the most sensible idea in the world. Next thing he's bolting and chaining, wrapping a bike chain around the back door handle, would you believe, and looking for his hammer to board up the whole damn house. I watched all this, wondering: what the hell? Sometimes Jimmy gets in these moods where it's best just to let him spit it up and throw things around, and you just hide in the cellar ‘til he's done. You know what people are like. Next day, you forget all about it.
SO I WENT to the kitchen while he was slamming stuff around and mumbling about security and took a look at the ham. I'd never seen a lump of meat like it, big and round as a rolled-up sleeping bag. I poked it and a moist spot went under my fingernail. Next thing I know, Jimmy's right behind me, snuck-up like, and I screamed.
"What'd you say about the ham?" he whispered, creepy whisper. "You touch it?"
"Yeah, I poked it one," I said all calm-like. Times like this, you gotta put his attention back on the ham. I say: "Look at it. This ain't no ordinary meat. Where'd you ...?"
Oh no, that wasn't the right question to ask yet – not ‘til he knew I was on his team. "Check it out," I whispered creepy like him, like it was hidden treasure or something. "This is big meat, Jimmy. Wonder what kind of pig this come off? More like a mammoth or ... shit, I dunno, some kind of sea monster."
Jimmy's eyes went as shiny and beady as that rat we caught in the microwave. He didn't answer, just gave this half-sigh, half-grunt and ran a palm down the side of the ham, smearing finger-trails in the grease. Wasn't so sure I wanted to eat it after that – I've seen Jimmy's personal hygiene habits and he doesn't have any. I supposed it'd be OK if we cut the edges off, like skinning an orange.
I was about to suggest it when I heard Jimmy mumbling to himself – or maybe to the meat, I couldn't tell. His throat sounded hoarse and full of muck, almost like a man in a peep show booth trying to talk himself into enjoying the show. And what was he saying? I swear, it's not how he normally talks: "Beats it by a fine line ... just a little, one section with no jiggles, no spaces to crawl into, no ... hand to hold ... could smack it like a cheerleader's backside nonetheless ... no charges pressed ... she'd sing songs of love if I bought her the lips for it ... stuff ‘em in my pocket at the butcher ... oh sweet glory ..."
He wasn't blinking, was kind of panting through the lips and a funny thought hit me that he was comparing the meat to ... nah, damn it, that made no sense. He bought it to eat, not marry, right? That's what he said when he came in, remembered it clear as day: "We have just three days to eat this ham." What changed his mind? Whoever heard of a man falling in love with a ham? Anyway, I backed outta there, not sure what to say. He looked like he wanted to be left alone with it, so I left him to it. Can't say I felt real comfortable with the whole business.
I WENT TO bed with no dinner because I wasn't hungry after that. Couldn't sleep well either – I could hear Jimmy occasionally shouting at the ham, and could hear the floorboards creaking out there, which made me wonder what the hell he was doing. Must've dropped off around twelve, but at 1am a weird smell woke me up. Jimmy was in the room with me, just sitting there looking out the window with this real sad look on his face. The moon lit him up like a Halloween pumpkin. I screamed, but he didn't flinch or blink or anything. He says: "You have to help me, Boris."
Enough's enough, I reckoned. "Hey, I'm sleeping you fuck."
"I can't stand her just ... sitting there. Not moving. Not talking. It's taking me over, Boris. I need help."
I wanted to clock him, but there was a greasy shine over his face and beard, and I reckoned I knew why: he'd been rubbing his face against the slab, I'd bet my thumbs, and he smelled salty. I didn't want that slime on my knuckles, so I just shook my head. Seen Jimmy do some weird stuff in my time – once he got up on the roof and wouldn't come down for a week, kept screaming about earthquakes. He only came down when magpies started swooping him.
"What you want me to do?" I say. "How'm I meant to help? You want to eat that damn meat or what? What's the story, Jim?"
He looked out the window at the moonlight. I could just tell he was thinking of boarding up the window, but whether to keep folks out or keep me in, I couldn't tell. Then I backed up a step and realised he'd called the ham "her". I kinda lost it.
"Jimmy," I screamed, "that ham ... it's not a she, alright? Not a she." It was all I could think of to say.
For a second it looked like I'd got him stirred. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a knife – by God – and a fork. Still looking out the window, he laid them across my sheets where my belly was, and without a word stood and made a "follow me" sign with his hands, all solemn-like. It was like we were at a funeral.
So I followed him down the hall, out to the kitchen where the meat pile was starting to stink the place up. There was a chunk missing from around the top, looked like it'd been gouged out with fingers. He'd eaten some then, which seemed fine to me – that's how people and ham are supposed to get along.
"So what do you want me to do?" I say, though I reckoned I knew: he wanted me to eat it for him, God knows why, only he couldn't bring himself to say it. Next thing he's crying like a baby, sitting on the kitchen floor bawling, whole body lurching around like he was being kicked. Didn't know what to tell him – what was making him sad? He wasn't even drunk.
Enough's enough, I reckoned again, and said: "I'm throwing this out, you watch me."
He says: "No."
"Yeah, fuck you. It's gone on long enough."
He says: "She can't be nothing but what God made her."
"What's God got to do with it? And it's not a she, Jimmy."
He called me insensitive or something, so I did what I had to: popped him in the mouth. Thought he'd fight, but he broke down again and cried and said: "Take it, take it, take it away. I can't do it by myself. I'm leaning on it like a man with a crutch, ain't s'posed to be like this, help me Boris, for God's sake, help me!"
So I grabbed the ham and went to the door, but the damn thing was barred up and I couldn't get the boards loose. I set the meat down and Jimmy had a change of heart all of a sudden, and came running at me with murder in his eyes, yelling about me taking her away from him, and how everyone always took everything away from him, and how he wasn't gonna let it happen no more. I said, "Fine, take the fucking meat and do what you gotta do, just leave me out of it, OK?"
BACK IN MY room, I could hear him blubbering, then an electric carving knife started up. Next thing there's a quiet tap on my door and I open it, and Jimmy's left a plate of ham slices out there on the floor. He'd cut 'em into the shape of tears, probably trying to make me feel guilty for something I couldn't quite understand, but they might've been quotation marks, I never really found out. You know what people are like. Some of 'em are lonely, I guess, and some of 'em had too much taken away and they get attached to things they probably shouldn't. Guess it makes you think.
In the morning, the meat was all gone and Jimmy seemed to have pulled the boards loose from the doors and his coat wasn't hung up. There was meat slime all over the kitchen ... I never knew ham could be so wet. Around then I thought I heard digging in the yard. I went to the kitchen window and saw someone had spit up some ham in the sink and left it there. Wasn't me, is all I know.
Out in the yard, there was Jimmy. He'd dug a hole with a shovel and the ham was lying in the dirt. Felt kind of sorry for it, and for Jimmy, who just stood there with his head down. I wondered what the neighbours would think. I watched him for a bit, whispering to myself: "Come on Jimmy, you can do it."
He stayed completely still for a while longer. I was rooting for the guy, you know, saying: "Come on Jimmy, do what you gotta do." Must've been an hour before he got down on his haunches and pushed the meat into the hole he dug, and started raking dirt back over there.
Made a big lump in the yard. He looked up at me through the window, our eyes met for a sec and he nodded his head. I nodded back to him – he did what he had to do and I was proud.
A FEW YEARS later, we were having a beer and I saw fit to mention the ham. I'd been anxious to talk about it – you know what people are like when they got wounds. But you just got to clear the air sometimes, you know?
Jim looked at me. "Yeah?"
"Remember that ham?"
Jim nodded. "Yeah."
"Where'd you get that ham, anyway?"
Jimmy shrugged. "Found it," he said, and as far as that conversation went, it seemed to be the end.