Melanie Janisse-Barlow is a poet, artist, and writer who splits her time between a rum-runners era house in Windsor’s Old Walkerville and a houseboat docked beside Ontario Place. We’re posting installments from Janisse-Barlow’s new memoir, Kalinka. Candid, raw, and full of references to our beloved city, Kalinka is a collection of stories about a woman, a man, and how life on Kalinka, their houseboat, has shaped their journey. We’re excited to share Janisse-Barlow’s writing with you and also delighted to pair with local illustrator Emily May Rose. Read previous installments here.
The first person I met living on a boat was Leandro. He lived in a partially restored boat in a boatyard full of such boats. I am not sure about the other boat people, but Leandro had been there for twenty years. He was one of my first friends on the West Coast.
He wore pressed white shirts and cravats but was a bit rough around the edges if you looked closer. I often wondered how it was that he could keep his shirts so crisp, considering his living arrangements. They were perfectly ironed, even though some of the collars had yellowed a bit, or there might be grease around the cuff. His eyes were blue and distant, at sea, while his body stayed aground.
I had met him through a pair of girls living out of an old, flat front van, who hung around downtown Victoria, usually in Market Square. I had gotten them both jobs at the recycling plant where I worked, deep in the industrial lands past Leandro’s shipyard. We smoked rollies on our break, sitting along the open side door of the van, or under a small tree on the side of the plant.
One day, Leandro was walking on Johnston street, his wild, white hair framed by the blue steel bridge in the background. He stopped to say hello to Joy, who I was sitting with on a bench.
“Yes, a boat.”
I thought it ridiculous. I thought maybe he would be dangerous like Charles Manson. I thought it was damp-aired, weird hippy shit. His story of living on a boat in a shipyard was lined with old hostels, heroin, hand-carved wood hairpins, giant cones of weed, and Nag Champa, but in a dusty room where Douglas Street headed out to the highway, where someone had missed the turn to the communes and had wound up there intending someday to move on. His story was an old guitar in a pawn shop, waiting for its owner to come back and reclaim its sound.
“A boat. For real?”
“Yes, a boat.”
I had to go see for myself, stopping first in Capitol Iron. Heading straight for the basement to look through the old, alien-faced diving masks and the dusty wooden figureheads, I moved through the shadows of old nautical things, bracing myself, then headed back up into the sun of the hardware store, then behind the building into the old shipyard.
“Hello, dear one.”
“Welcome to The Wanderer.”
“I am not responsible for any lost items, liberations, or changes of heart that happen while you are aboard, but I can offer you a cold drink and a bowl of homemade pasta.”
“Come in! I don’t bite, but my cat Frances might, so be careful.”
I settled myself in for the ride. Spent the afternoon going nowhere on a boat.
Over the course of visits, I accustomed myself.
At some point, Leandro had obviously given up on actually getting the boat out of the yard, as he had built a thin, two-storey lean that attached to the starboard side. He had fashioned himself a kitchen in there, where he made the most majestic Italian food. The small window was strung with garlands of fresh herbs and copper pots. I was sitting on his deck, smelling the scent of garlic and onions he was frying to make pasta sauce for me. He was singing opera badly while he chopped. It had taken him no time to get to the singing. One he settled down beside me, with supper served, I forked up my pasta in giant twirls, staring at him wide-eyed.
There was something here. There was the promise of Shangri-La, sometime, once the boat was fixed. I wondered to myself if it even mattered after all if Leandro made it out of this shipyard behind Capitol Iron. If he ever hit the seas on his lifetime journey. He seemed fine here cooking pasta, saluting the other people who had wound up here, entombed on land with dreams of the sea. They were not bad people, nor had they failed. They were all edging. They were an indication.
I walked away from the graffitied room and the opium. I was sixteen. I walked away from the boyfriend needing endless blow jobs and the biker uncle and his magic flag. I had walked away from the place where I grew up, where I was being buried under in salted wounds. I had joined a different legion that pan-handled in front of the McDonalds, played hacky sack in Bastion Square, juiced wheatgrass, shot heroin. I crossed the country and settled in as far away from Windsor as I could possibly get before running out of land.
The witches have stores on the coast with divining rods for sale, and wormwood for clearing. The tarot decks are all fanned out in Fan Tan Alley, waiting. The docks hold secrets, play tricks on you in the moonlight, steal the Hamsa you had tethered to your wrist, boosted from your aunt’s drawer for a night. You find it later dangling at the end of a row of houseboats, down a dock that you didn’t go down, the fingers of the hand pointing towards the water, twinkling in the moonlight, putting your arm’s hairs on end. The poets sit drinking strong coffee in coffee houses whose bathrooms are lined in sheet music, glossed with paper mâché. Everyone is wearing Victorian clothes, turquoise, 1940s dresses, tea sandals.
This is another world.
I look out into the harbour from Leandro’s cockpit, his dreams of leaving aching me. Each portal is haunted by those who missed the opening, distracted by another material dream or another, or who stayed cobwebbed into a fear, coiled, human. There is a thronging at each locale, herds of moths banging their heads against the brightness while preferring the dark.
Before I leave the yard, I look back at the boats. The wind whips my face as I listen to the masts humming. I tell myself that the tears in my eyes are from the bite of the wind. It is better that way. I tell myself that the boats are God’s harps, tuning. I hear Leandro doing his dishes, singing Madama Butterfly in the distance. I turn away and make my way to the bus home.