Authors: Marni Jackson
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“WE ALL LIKE PEOPLE WHO DO THINGS, EVEN IF WE ONLY SEE THEIR FACES ON A CIGAR-BOX LID.”
The Song of the Lark,
by Willa Cather
These stories are works of fiction. Despite some autobiographical elements, they are all inventionsâjust as celebrity itself is a kind of fiction, since stars can only exist at the point where their public roles and our imaginations meet. In a sense, we author their fame.
While a number of celebrities or artists, some living and some deceased, engage with the main character of these stories, readers should not assume that I have met them, or that the actions and words I have attributed to them represent things they have done or said in real life. But whenever artists share their creative gifts with us, when we are consoled or inspired by their words, lyrics, and performances, we come to feel we know them. Their presence in these stories is meant to represent the powerful and intimate roles that famous people sometimes play in our ordinary lives.
The Doon School of Fine Arts occupied the former summer house of Horatio Walker, a modestly celebrated (there is no other kind) nineteenth-century Canadian painter. Two of his canvases, landscapes with sulfurous skies and tossing trees, hung on the walls of the dining room, where art students doubling as waitresses set the long communal tables and served the meals: shepherd's pie, weeping coleslaw, hard rolls on a side plate. Dinner always began with tomato juice in a slender glass, like the red line in a thermometer.
I had just turned seventeen. My parents, eager to encourage my precocious “way with words” and my “flair for art” (I excelled at drawing horses in profile) had signed me up for summer coursesâone week of Introductory Oil Painting, followed by a week of Introductory Creative Writing. My father kept urging me to send something in to
for the “Humor in Uniform” section, overlooking the fact that I was not in active military service. I was in grade twelve. But I did have a sort of uniformâthe pink smock I wore for my part-time job as a shampoo girl for Rico's House of Beauty. With the word “Rose” embroidered on one pocket. I had a sort of boyfriend too. But I was growing tired of Larry, so I agreed to go to Doon.
It was 1963, the first year the school offered a writing course, and they were pleased to welcome John Hoyer Updike as the inaugural instructor. He had published a book of poems,
The Tessellated Hen
, which I couldn't find in the Burlington library. But I didn't need to read it, or his new novel about an aging basketball player. His stories had been published in
The New Yorker
and that was godlike enough for me.
The photo in Doon's brochure showed a mild, goatish-looking young man with a long nose and bushy eyebrows, smiling. His brown hair was cut short, a thatch at war with multiple cowlicks. His gaze met the camera as if sharing a joke, and his upper lip had an appealing dip in the middle, like the waist of a violin. It was an expression of mischief, intelligence, and appetite. He was young, probably not even thirty, but to me anyone over nineteen was generically adult.
On the page opposite was a picture of the art teacher, Emilio Renzetti, looking truculent and disheveled with black hairs curling out of his open shirt. I showed his picture to my father one morning as he was reading the paper. “That guy looks like trouble,” he said, snapping the business section open. I decided not to show him the slightly satyr-faced Harvard grad who would help usher me into the pages of
It was the summer I wore my blond hair short, in a “cap cut” with comma-shaped side curls that I Scotch-taped to my cheeks each night. This sometimes left faint shiny patches on my cheeks. My legs were long and tanned and I wore shorts most of the time, although these were always part of carefully engineered outfits. A pair of pale-yellow Bermudas with a matching halter top, both reversible to a blue plaid fabric, was my number-one outfit. I wore it the day my parents drove me to Doon to meet my fellow studentsâall womenâfor Art Week.
The seven of us shared an airy dormitory at the top of the stairs where we kept our suitcases under iron-frame beds covered with chenille spreads in pastel shades. There were two brisk and wiry older women who wore unusual eyeglasses. Real painters, they had brought along folding chairs for working outdoors. I was by far the youngest of the group, with my three stiff, never-used brushes.
Horatio Walker's house sat in a sort of dell across from a willow-shaded river. The Grand flowed through Doon with a Wordsworthian stateliness that set it apart from the stolid farmland and creeping suburbs of southern Ontario. Languid, pastoral, and somehow secretive, Doon already felt fictional to meâthe perfect setting for a murder, or a love affair.
On our first morning, the dorm ladies convened downstairs for a Life Drawing session. This took place in the dining room with a naked model posed on the same draped table we would later sit around for dinner. With sticks of charcoal we worked at easels on big sheets of beige newsprint. The idea, Emilio told us, was to work fast; if a sketch wasn't getting anywhere, we should flip the sheet and start afresh.
I found I was good at it, the quick, intuitive first strokes. I liked the focused silence of the room, all of us scratching away in a circle, heads tilting up and down. For meâa virginâit was also sexual in a perfectly manageable way. Sometimes the model was one of the waitresses who would later serve us, which was a little shocking. There was a stool in place for her to step up onto the table. I learned that the trick was to take in the fact of her nakedness and then to see through it, break it down into lines and shadows. Soon you were inside the state of nakedness with her, which almost caused it to disappear. This made the prospect of my own potential nakedness less alarming.
In the afternoon, we switched to oil painting, outside. We trailed across the lawn behind Emilio into the woods, where we were expected to find a particular stump or rock or split-rail fence that took our fancy and paint it en plein air.
“Just paint what speaks to you,” said Emilio, who seemed faintly irritated by all of us.
I had no idea how to discover the contours in the mess that was Nature. One tree looked like another to me. My new wooden palette fit the curve of my thumb in an agreeable way, and I liked squeezing wet rosettes of paint onto it, then twirling them flat with my brush. But while the rest of the group got down to work, dabbing away in silence, I couldn't seem to find a subject that drew my eye.
As I wandered more deeply into the woods, I stumbled on the foundation of a ruined barnâa dark, stony tooth socket in the earth with a still-intact staircase in one corner. Stairs to nowhere. I tried to paint these red pointless steps rising out of the earth, perhaps recognizing something hopeful, aspiring, but wildly out of context, like me.
On our second day, fed up with my efforts, I filled another canvas with an agitated pine tree that at least had some turmoil and energy to it. It was every color but green. Emilio came by, frowning. He studied my tree for a moment, then pointed to a whirling ochre bit. “Very painterly,” he murmured and passed on.
That was encouraging. But the next afternoon, when I tried to repeat myself, it didn't work.
So I gave up on art.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Still, the daily routines at Doon pleased me. I liked sleeping in the dorm with the gentle snoring ladies, and coming down at the end of the day to tomato juice and jellied salads on the two long tables. We'd wait for the swinging doors to open as the waitresses, some of them local girls with dancing ponytails and other things on their minds, came in and out carrying metal water jugs. I liked playing sad, precocious bits of Erik Satie on the loose-keyed piano in the parlor, or taking solitary walks in the rain down to the stone bridge over the Grand, dressed in a man's yellow rain jacket that came to the bottom of my shortest stretch-terrycloth shorts.
One night after a downpour, the river turned the color of milky tea and rose almost to the height of the banks. A crew from a local TV show came by in a van and shot me standing pensively (needless to say) on the bridge. I saw myself on the news that night and was shocked by how normal and round-faced I looked. I thought I was working on a different sort of character, the girl with cheekbones who reads Albert Camus and plays sarabandes at dusk.
Doon was less than a hamletâjust a cemetery, a gas station, and a general store. Nothing ever happened there after dark, except Ping-Pong. In the evenings some of us would wander down the road, passing under the single moth-orbited streetlight as the frogs kept up a chorus as loud and rhythmic as a polka band. When we reached the Shell station, we'd throw stones at the orange metal sign, which would silence the frogs. Then the chorus would start up again and we'd head back to the dorms.
One of my roommates, I noticed, was reading
Sherry was the best painter of the group and the oldest. I asked her if she liked it and did she know that John Updike himself was coming to Doon in a few days.
“He's quite good at description. But the hero is a man who sells vegetable peelers and doesn't much like his wife,” she said with a dismissive flap of her hand. “It does have spicy bits though. Very spicy.” She looked over the navy-blue frames of her glasses. “Not for you, my dear.”
I reviewed the thin sheaf of writing I would present to John Updike. This included the grad notes I had written for our high school yearbook, many of which were shockingly inappropriate. (“Most likely to die young.”) A story about a picnic, told from the point of view of an ant. Several self-deprecating essays about trying and failing to do something, such as knitting a sweater for my dog.
But the quality that most equipped me for writing, perhaps, was a chronic sense of unease. I felt outside most things, a shy and yearning observerâif not a fly on the wall, then an ant at the picnic. At seventeen I was already the omniscient narrator of my own life, both everywhere and nowhere at once. I also had the remnants of a childhood stutter, and dreaded being called upon in chemistry class in case I had to say the word “carbon” with its unforgiving hard c. My stutter did make me choose my words more carefully, though. It fed writing.