Excerpt

Don’t I Know You?

Marni Jackson

August 24, 2016 
The following is from Marni Jackson’s novel, Do I Know You?. For much of her career Jackson has worked as a journalist, winning numerous National Magazine Awards for her humor, columns and social commentary. She has also published three nonfiction books, including the bestselling memoir, The Mother Zone (1992).

If it snows overnight, the silence in the early morning has a different quality, as if a duvet has fallen over the city. I lay there wondering how deep it was. Then I heard the scrape of a shovel, like winter clearing its throat. Our neighbor Barry was already out there, even before the snow had stopped or the plows came through. Sometimes it’s a lovely sound, shoveling. Sometimes not.

It was mid-January. I was still in bed, dragging my heels about getting the ad copy in for Flo-Q’s new line of indoor wave pools. “No more sand in your suit” didn’t do it for Leanna, who oversees me. She doesn’t like me calling her boss. “We’re co-creators” she always says before slashing away at my copy. I gave her a little cartoon that I’d drawn, of a couple in bed beside a big standing wave in the lap pool. The wife is saying “Surf’s up, at least.” Too negative, Leanna said. She was right.

I turned on my phone, then turned it off. I’ve been trying to stop tracking my novels on Amazon. The last time I checked, The Bludgeoning was in 789,470th place. Which is not the bottom, by a long shot. I repeated this to myself: “Not the bottom.” My therapist, Katrine, has instructed me to take every negative thought I have and turn it into a positive one, like doing origami. Newsprint into bluebirds. I’ve also started a gratitude journal. “I’m grateful to have started my gratitude journal” was the first entry. How can I be sarcastic even with myself? I know it’s important to take the exercise seriously, but it feels like I’m joining a cult of one.

Gratitude does work, though. I can feel my thinking shift ever so incrementally toward the light, an ocean liner changing course. And whatever works, I want. Eric’s affair (I mean, his recent remarriage) is still livid in my mind, like some ghastly patterned wallpaper that you can’t not see every day as soon as you open your eyes. And I’m still waiting to hear back from that e-publisher about Havoc.

I should be starting something new, but I don’t have the heart for it.

Another thing I realize is that writing is a mirror you can’t trust. On Monday the words look supple and fit, a fine dancing partner. On Tuesday the same words look contrived and flat. Who cares? Blah, blah, blah. On the other hand, I do not trust people who never doubt, who just plunge on. They seem like babies.

I should get up and shovel the walk, I told myself as I lay there ruminating, the term Katrine prefers. The new mother across the street might be wrestling her stroller out there right now, her child encased in clear plastic like a bunch of bananas. And sometimes Barry clears our walk too, if I don’t beat him to it.

I do like my new sheets, though. Navy flannel. Part of my positive embrace of winter. What is flannel, anyway? Is it shorn from some flannel beast, a sheep specially bred by IKEA? And I don’t mind the way the gray light enters my room at this time of year in such a diplomatic way, easing me into the day. Especially when I do not get up until ten. Leanna doesn’t care when I get up as long as I deliver by four thirty. That woman has an easy job.

So that’s how my day begins, normally. But, and I want to get this down before it fades, this morning was different.

I rose at 9:20, and drew the curtains. More than a foot of snow had fallen. The cars parked across the street looked like desserts, white îles flotantes of meringue. Only Barry next door had already shoveled his way to the sidewalk, and was throwing down seedlets of blue chemicals to melt whatever was left. Affable Barry has had heart surgery and smokes, a lot, standing under his porch light. I do worry about the morning when he doesn’t step out of his house to light up another cigarette, because he is often the first person I see when I leave the house—if, indeed, I leave the house—and the last person who sees me when I come home alone at night. I would miss Barry.

What was that song that Ryan wrote in high school, about our previous neighbor, a Portuguese man who insisted on pouring concrete over his yard even in the most lethal heat waves? “I Fear That My Neighbor Has Died.” Good song. I miss him, and Ceri too. Why did I encourage them to live in other countries?

I was about to step into the shower when I heard the doorbell ring. My Victorian house has a wonderful arrangement—a brass ring on the outside that you pull. Through a series of Rube Goldberg mechanisms linked by a cable, this causes a coiled metal strip to spring open and strike a brass bell that then rings loudly in my hall. Everyone, even the jaded postal person, admires the bell. It probably goes back to the year the house was built, 1896. In the nineteenth century, our midtown enclave of cottages and brick houses became the living quarters for the working men who built the rest of the city—a neighborhood where cabbage soup was a staple. Hence the name, Cabbagetown. Now, of course, the houses go for a million, even semidetached.

When you’re young, living in a vintage house confers character. You buy some history for yourself. But as you get older, the parallels between your aging house and your own decline can become oppressive. Your life becomes a list of repairs and maintenance. Replace back stoop. Change furnace filter. Book physio.

I wrapped my Chinese silk robe around me and answered the door. A tall broad-shouldered young man with an impressive nose and a joli-laide face stood there, dressed like a crossing guard, holding a large snow shovel.

“Cool bell,” he began.

“Yes. It’s very old.”

“Clear your walk?”

“I don’t know. How much?”

“Twenty bucks, including the side lane and access to your bins.”

“Why do you look so familiar?”

He shrugged. “I’m on TV sometimes.” Being recognized seemed to pain him. His eyes were a little too close together but the overall effect was handsome somehow. Then it clicked.

“You’re Adam Driver!”

He pulled off his tuque. Unruly dark hair, a couple Cindy Crawford moles. Large head.

“Bingo.”

While We’re Young! Loved you in that.”

At this Adam Driver looked relieved, because I didn’t go straight to Girls. I had just seen him in the movie Inside Llewyn Davis, a slightly softheaded film about a singer/songwriter trying to make it in New York, who fails. He plays a more successful musician who is willing to do whatever sells, including a ridiculous song called “Please Mr. Kennedy.” A small part, but he stood out, as usual. Any scene he’s in gets big fast.

“And I love Justin Timberlake,” I said, a little too enthusiastically. “But you were great. It’s like you have your own dialect when you act. The way you kind of subvert the normal rhythm of a sentence.”

This too-detailed, show-offy feedback nevertheless made him smile. His eyes warmed. Then we both realized that I was in a robe, it was very cold, and snow was sifting into the front hall as we spoke, building a tiny dune inside the threshold.

“Okay, shovel away, Adam. Just ring when you’re finished.”

“Cool.”

I closed the door. Have a shower, I thought, but don’t wash the hair. There was an unopened round of Brie in the fridge, and half a loaf of decent bread left. I took the cheese out of the fridge to come to room temperature. Adam would be hungry after all that shoveling.

From the upstairs bedroom, I peered through the slats of the blinds. Barry was out smoking next door, watching this young stranger work. Adam hurled the snow methodically, first left onto the front yard, then right, off the curb. Left, right, always moving west. He had unzipped his big parka. He wore those heavy cuffed garbage-man gloves. I guess this is how he keeps in shape, I thought.

I got into the shower, with its brand-new generous multi-stream Flo-Q head. Standing under the torrent of hot water, I couldn’t help coming up with more copy. “Shower Yourself with Love,” or perhaps just “Get Wetter.” But Leanne did not like innuendo.

Afterward, wrapped in a towel, I went to check on Adam again from my office window. He was already halfway to the green organic bin in the lane. Neat margins. God, it’s great to watch a young man use his body. His parka was off now and his yellow snow pants were held up by crossed suspenders over a thick sweater. Snow pants can be sexy.

I put on my second-best jeans and a little black tank top under a blue striped men’s shirt. Mutton dressed as lamb? What the hell.

Then I went down, sliced the bread, cracked the packaging on some biscuits, and arranged them around the Brie with the cheese knife. I went to the door just as Adam was ringing the bell.

“Look at you,” I said idiotically when I opened the door. I pretended to assess the bare sidewalks. “Great job!”

“It’s still fresh,” he said. “Not too heavy.”

“Come on in and have a bite, Adam,” I said. “You must be starved.”

“I could eat,” he said, a little embarrassed.

“By the way. That scene in What If, where you play Daniel Radcliffe’s horndog roommate? Fantastic.”

“The nachos scene?”

“Yes! You sit down across from Daniel with this huge plateful of food and you say—”

At this Adam got into character. “ ‘I’ve just had sex . . .’ ”

“ ‘And now I’m going to eat some . . .’ ”

And here we both shouted the word.

“ ‘Nachos!’ ”

“Which could have been such a throwaway moment.”

“Well, I can thank the writer for that one.”

He unlaced his boots and put his parka on the newel post of the banister, then followed me into the kitchen.

“Hmm, Brie,” he said, already paving a cracker with it. “Not nachos, but close.” I chuckled. “I suppose we could reverse the order.”

What was I saying? Was I suggesting to Adam Driver that he eat my cheese, and then we have sex? Wasn’t it enough that he had shoveled my walk for a very reasonable price? But when stars are involved, even minor ones, desire always escalates. It’s like a street drug.

“Ha-ha,” Adam said. Perfectly at ease, letting it go by gracefully.

He looked out into my yard, where I had neglected to take in the patio furniture. Like a 3-D printer, the round wrought- iron table had duplicated itself in a lacy layer of standing snow. It was very pretty and somehow French. Adam ate and gazed at the snowscape. He had a wide brow and his face was dominated by that nose, but changeable. There was a latent fury in his expression, even when he smiled. I poured him a tall glass of coconut water and he drank it down in one go.

“Gotta stay hydrated,” he said. He tilted his chair back. “So, I’m going to work this side of the street, then do Sackville, then knock off for the day.”

“Sackville’s got deep front yards,” I said helpfully.

“You’re right. Maybe I’ll only do one side.”

I felt relaxed with him. Fatal. I tapped the back of his hand on the table.

“I know everyone must ask you this but . . . what’s going to happen with you and Lena Dunham in the next season?”

I could see that I had now disappointed him. This was probably why he was shoveling walks in Toronto. To be not Adam Driver.

“Sorry, can’t say. Embargoed. But I’m in four of the episodes. That I can tell you.”

“And Lena . . . ?”

He made a voilà gesture with one hand. “Just as you would imagine. Creative. Open.” He laughed. “Super open.”

“She’s handled her success pretty well, I think. For some- one so . . .”

He looked at me mock-lasciviously. “Young?” “Right.”

“Well, young is just one factor, like being born in Ohio or . . . having a minister for a father,” he said. “But it’s not all-defining.”

“I guess. Sort of.”

He looked at me for a long moment. I had to break his gaze.

“What’s your name?”

“Rose.”

“Hello, Rose.”

The doorbell rang again. I could tell by the shape through the pebbled glass that it was Barry, from next door. Reluctantly, I went to answer it. His shy bulk filled the doorframe. It was snowing again.

“Hi, Rose.”

“Hello, Barry.” We enjoyed our little formalities.

“I noticed that a young man came by to shovel your walk. Would he . . . be interested in doing ours?”

Barry, who was in his forties, lived with his mother, Ruth, a spry eighty-two-year-old who was always the first one out the door in the morning, to walk her little dog.

Adam Driver heard all this and came down the hall.

“Your walk looks pretty clean,” Adam pointed out. Barry had cleared it earlier, so that Ruth could make her way.

“Snow’s falling fast though,” said Barry, “and I don’t want to take any chances.” He smiled and tapped his chest. “Somebody in Mississauga already died this morning from shoveling. It’s the sudden intense demand on the heart muscle.”

“He’s just having a bite to eat,” I offered, waving my hand toward the kitchen.

Adam stepped out the door to consider the job ahead of him. The snow was coming down thick and wet, already filling in the dark blanks of the pavement. When he came back inside there were flakes in his hair, perfectly formed crystals.

“Okay. But let’s give it an hour,” he said. He unwound his scarf.

“I’ll light a fire,” I said brightly.

“Sounds good,” said Barry, retreating. “You’ll have more to work with then.”

I pulled out my phone and texted Leanna: DOWN WITH A BUG, COPY IN TOMORROW OK?

Adam Driver closed the door gently behind him, so the bell didn’t ring, and brushed the snow out of his hair.

“I don’t think we need a fire,” he said.

Some time later, Barry knocked, waited, and rang the bell. Then we heard him below us in the laneway with the shovel, scraping cautiously, trying to make as little noise as possible.

 

From DON’T I  KNOW YOU? Used with permission of Flatiron Books. Copyright © 2016 by Marni Jackson.


  • rjmchatton

    Funny and interesting story. Liked it. Thanks for sharing.



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