The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith


  Tripping backwards over his feet, Rubinfine hiccoughed, giggled, righted himself, and shadow-boxed the Ali poster, picking up Alex’s bag from the floor and heaving it to the bed. Checking the door every few minutes, he hurried through the pockets, looking. He thought for a moment that Louise Brooks was Kitty, but Kitty was later, no? And her face was different. More modern. So many in here. There is so much fame in the world. Taylor, Pickford, Grayson, Cagney, Chevalier. And here we are.

  Rubinfine drew Duchamp’s photograph out of its plastic sheath and took a moment to concede that the woman was astonishing. If one were to become dangerously delusional about a woman and her signature, one could do worse. He looked a little longer, marveling at the architecture of her cheeks. And then he ripped the thing into six pieces.

  The exhilaration was considerable. It was what he and Joseph had agreed on during the drive here, though they had never imagined it would be so easy. They had envisioned an all-nighter, a twelve-tissue bout with tears and drama. They were going to walk right in and harass him until he handed it over. Because until the thing was gone, he would not be able to stop fixating on it. That was Joseph’s formulation, and Rubinfine had agreed with it or decided to agree with it. So. Now it was gone.

  Enormously pleased with himself, Rubinfine gathered the scraps into his hands and stood up. He toyed with the analogy of the parents who force their heroin-ravaged child into cold turkey. He reflected with pleasure upon the axioms “tough love” and “all for the best.” He was just about to leave the room when three photographs on the near wall caught his eye: Norma Shearer, Debbie Reynolds and Deanna Durbin. Which reminds me, thought Rubinfine (Debbie Reynolds • Eddie Fisher • Carrie Fisher • Princess Leia • Han Solo • Harrison Ford): I bet he’s not telling me something. Bet the sneaky bastard’s hiding a Ford, waiting to sell it to someone else, someone richer.

  Rubinfine went back to the bed and opened the bag. He found a Ford quickly enough. Silently, he cursed Alex. Then he looked closer. Rubinfine rocked back on the bed, yelped ecstatically behind his hand. To Mark! For a long minute, Rubinfine thought he might cry. He had a birthday coming up, two weeks from now. And to think how Alex had hidden this from him, and so well! The trouble he must have gone to, getting this for him, personalized, perfect! Rubinfine was more than touched. He felt like taking this autograph and showing it to every one of those teachers and therapists and rabbis who had told him he had no interpersonal skills. Look what my friend has done for me! Look what my good friend Alex-Li Tandem has done for me! Reluctantly, Rubinfine put it back where he had found it. He would act surprised next time he saw it. Surprised and overjoyed, which was the truth, even if he had to replay it one more time for an audience.

  On the bed, a small mound of torn photograph. For a minute, he had forgotten all about it, but there it was, reproaching him. Rubinfine collected it and shoved it in his pockets and left the room. Standing in the hallway, he could hear Joseph and Alex, all guns blazing. Boot was, unsuccessfully, trying to calm them down. The gist was Give it to me. And the other gist was Over my dead body. If this house was burning, Alex was saying, I’d take my autographs before anything else here, including you.

  Agonized, Rubinfine took a step forward and then one back and then slowly walked down the stairs. Now he stood at the threshold. As clear as the world he heard his friend say: “Look, you have your work, Joseph, yes? And Rubinfine has his family. And Adam has his God. And this is what I have. My little obsessions. You used to have them too, but you grew out of them. Lucky you. But I didn’t, all right? Do you understand? This is what is between me and my grave. This is what I have.”

  Poor Rubinfine. He tucked his head round the door, told the assembled company that Rebecca’s eczema had flared up again, that Joseph should come now if he wanted a lift, and disappeared out of the front door.

  2.

  A much later stage of the party; only two people are in attendance. The video is rolling. Alex and Boot are collapsed on the sofa, having a silent misunderstanding about sex. Boot has removed her tights and is waiting to be groped, for no reason she can put her finger on. (Certainly not out of desire, for example. More out of a kind of indignation.) Alex is resolute in his intention not to grope, for no reason he understood. (Not really out of lack of desire, as such. Maybe it is a moral objection. Maybe it’s the drink.) Boot is pretending to be asleep, although she’s wide awake. Alex is pretending to be awake, although he can barely keep his eyes open. Boot is perfectly comfortable, but keeps shifting her position in an attempt to reignite the debate. Alex has terrible cramp but daren’t move. Kitty is in the final minutes of her journey, her closing song:

  You were my lucky star. . . .

  You said that I’d go far. . . .

  Finally, as the credits roll, Boot turns her back to him. This is one of the great unequivocal International Gestures, the kind that cannot be misread.

  autographman has enabled messenger (02:03)

  autographman: Es, I can see your icon. Are u there?

  autographman: Esther?

  autographman: I’m not totally beneath contempt, am I?

  autographman: I can be spoken to, can’t I? I CAN BE TYPED 2 at least???

  MissTicktock: You can be spoken to.

  autographman: Hi!

  MissTicktock: Hi

  autographman: You’re up late. hello.

  autographman: Knock knock.

  MissTicktock: Not interested.

  autographman: horse walks into a bar . . .

  MissTicktock: Ads says he saw u today. says u were acting like

  autographman: barman says: why the long face?

  MissTicktock: a complete fool.

  autographman: Hmmm . . .

  MissTicktock: I have to go 2 bed.

  MissTicktock: tired, feddup

  MissTicktock: Adam’s had me staring at walls all night

  MissTicktock: freaking madmen, all of you

  autographman: wait—

  MissTicktock: goodnight Alex

  autographman: wait!

  autographman: PLEASE!

  MissTicktock: what?

  autographman: just wait a minute.

  MissTicktock: . . . . . . . ?

  autographman: going to NY tomorrow. Haven’t even packed.

  MissTicktock: having surgery on Sunday. haven’t even submitted to the principles of a major religion.

  autographman: hello. My name is Alex-Li. I am a total waste of space. •Sorry•

  MissTicktock: At least it means I miss Rubinfine’s barn dance.

  autographman: thank heavens

  autographman: for small mercies.

  MissTicktock: very small. Four foot three.

  MissTicktock: Badoom boom boom.

  MissTicktock: thanguuuuverymuch

  autographman: u funny. I miss u.

  autographman: so much.

  MissTicktock: say hello to Ny for me

  autographman: everything stinks

  MissTicktock: say hello to Kitty for me (she lives there right? 109 years old—

  autographman: without you. Seriously. nothing works.

  MissTicktock: on 109th street.

  autographman: I’m serious. The world is broken.

  MissTicktock: my centagenerian (sp?) white woman competition.

  MissTicktock: goodnight alex.

  MissTicktock: yeah, but who’s gonna fix it, baby?

  Missticktock has disabled messenger (02:18)

  autographman: esther??

  autographman has disabled messenger (02:19)

  3.

  Friday morning was blue and without blemish. The long shadows made the coy pastel houses lean forward and kiss each other. The trees reached out for a fight with the fingers of wrestlers.

  “That? That was Boot,” explained Alex to his milk operative, Marvin, who was on the doorstep.

  “And? Does she fit?”

  “What?”

  “Boot. Does sh
e fit?”

  “Oh, got you. No. Not quite. Nice woman, though. Great, really.”

  Turning together, Marvin and Alex watched Boot, in yesterday’s clothes, mooch down the street and vanish at that point where Alex’s pretty yellow road met Mountjoy’s high street and all the dark, contesting facts of the world.

  “Mate, if I had what you have . . .” said Marvin, and whistled. Marvin was a great fan of Esther’s and pursued her frankly and relentlessly. He was one of those who called her African Princess, a description she considered an insult, along with the rest of the feminine diminutives: Baby Doll, Hot Stuff, Glamour Puss, Sex Kitten, Girlfriend.

  Alex snapped his fingers.

  “Oh! Marvin, before I forget—I won’t be needing any milk until next week. I’m going to New York.”

  Marvin returned his order book to the pocket of his uniform.

  “Going to New York. No milk. Hold the phone. Be still, my beating et cetera.”

  Now he reached into a bag on his shoulder and brought out a medium-sized package.

  “Before I forget, you got another one of these. Gary Fitz—I know him from way back, way back—he does the MailEx round here, but he can’t be arsed with this street—too out of his way and up a hill and the rest of it—so he’s started giving them to me when he gets ’em. ’Member? I gave you that one las’ week, back whenever.”

  “Gave me?” said Alex absently, taking the spongy packet in his hands and ripping along the red thread. He looked over at his dead car, musing whether he should pop in on Hollywood Alphabet, apologize to Ads, find Esther.

  “How’s your head, anyway? Where’s your head at, Alex? Did it come home?”

  From a sleeve of cardboard Alex drew out a pristine signed photograph of the popular actress Kitty Alexander, signed boldly to the lighter portion. He reached out an arm for Marvin, to steady himself.

  “You all right?”

  “I don’t understand,” whispered Alex, looking about wildly.

  “It’s not rocket science, mate. It’s just the post. Someone sends it, you get it. Nice photo. Who’s that, then? Hey, hey—don’t close the door on me, you’ve got to sign for it, Alex—wait, man—otherwise I don’t get my commission, you get me? There’s no moolah for meelah, otherwise.”

  Alex held the photo to his chest and then out in front of him. If it wasn’t real, he wasn’t Alex-Li Tandem. The inscription: To Alex, finally—Kitty Alexander.

  Alex’s face exploded into Technicolor.

  “Was this Adam? Jacobs—the video guy, you know, down the road? My friend? Or Rubinfine, the rabbi? Did someone put you up to this? Where did this come from?”

  Marvin sighed, took the package from Alex and turned it back over. “Return address American, envelope . . . American. I’d say America, man. Look, I can’t stand here all day. It’s just a package. It looks just like the one I gave you last week—”

  “Why do you keep saying that? When?”

  “Last week—a package from America, I gave you one. My name is Marvin. This is a house. That was your car. There is the sky. Laters, man.”

  Marvin did his traditional mosey down the path, but just before the gate Alex braved the cold ground and raced barefoot after him.

  “Wait, Marvin, wait. When you gave this other package to me—did you—did I open it? I mean, did you see me open it?”

  Marvin did the International Gesture for memory retrieval: the furrowed brow. “Er . . . Jesus, man, I don’t remember. Nah, I don’t think so. You were in a hurry, innit? You were off somewhere, going somewhere—I dunno. I didn’t see you for five days after that, anyway. You were sleeping it off in inverted commas, if you get me, yeah? Oh, man—I forgot—sign here, please.”

  Alex signed Marvin’s clipboard, thunderously dotting his i. He grabbed Marvin’s cheeks and kissed Marvin full on the lips.

  “Oi! Get out of it. I’m not that kind of delivery boy. I’m a milk operative, man. A milk operative. And dat’s it. Wait—that’s your signature? That’s not even English. Is that Chinese, man?”

  “Now, you see, Marvin,” said beaming Alex-Li, “this is a good fact. You didn’t see me open it. That’s the most important fact yet. Because it means—don’t you see? I’m not insane. I must have opened it at Ads’, when I was high. Which is reckless. But, it’s not insane. I am not insane. On the contrary, I understand. I understand.”

  “Bit early in the morning for epiphanies,” said Marvin disapprovingly. He gave his shirt one thorough, valedictory shake and shut the gate behind him.

  “ANITA,” SAID BREATHLESS ALEX-LI Tandem, patting down his bed hair and placing the cat box on the ground by his feet. “God, you look great. Look, I’m glad I caught you before you left. . . . You see, this is a bit awkward, but the thing is, I’m going to New York tonight, bit last-minute, you see—and I was just wondering, really—as it’s only for a few days—whether, you might consider taking—”

  “No,” said Anita Chang.

  AT HOLLYWOOD ALPHABET the fools of the world were trying to force their late videos into the slot before opening hours. Except Adam was wise to them. He had fashioned the slot to be precisely an inch too small for the videos. It was the gateway through which no man could pass, unless he was truly determined. At nine, then, each morning, Adam calmly took up his position by the slot, sitting on a fold-up chair with the Zohar on his knees, his smooth black fingertips striking against the coarse white grain of the page. He read aloud and in Hebrew.

  Rabbi Shim’on said

  “This one is not known by any name in the world,

  for something sublime is inside him.

  It is a secret!

  The flowing light of his father shines upon him!

  This secret has not spread among the Comrades.

  Alex had the knack, though. He knew how to angle his video in such a way that it took a sliver of paint off the door’s woodwork and fell rattling into the waiting cage.

  “Tandem?”

  “Always.”

  Alex’s manic excitement this morning made the opening of the door a trial. It also made the making of tea a trial, and the hearing of the incredible tale. By the time Adam was asked to take Grace, he had been worn down. He said yes as they sat on the three steps that formed the split level of the borrowing area, hugging mugs of green tea, looking out upon a sea of stories.

  “You’ll tell Esther, right? Just as I told it to you? You’ll tell her the facts. The whole story.”

  “Soon as she’s back from the library. Promise. The whole story. But Alex, have you thought any more about—?”

  “Doesn’t it feel good,” said Alex happily, “when everything gets tied up?”

  Grace curled round Adam’s ankles. Adam picked her up and held her to him.

  “When Lovelear sees this!” said Alex, hugging the package. “There’s a return address, clear as day!”

  “Hmm.”

  They sat quietly for a time, listening to the morning.

  “Adam,” asked Alex suddenly, “what do you think is wrong with him?”

  Adam visibly brightened, and turned to face him. “What do you think is wrong with him?”

  Alex frowned. “Well, I don’t know, do I, that’s why I’m asking you.”

  “I see,” said Adam quietly.

  Adam stood up, with Grace in one hand and The Girl from Peking in the other. With a sigh, he put Kitty back in her rightful place between Gilda and The Glenn Miller Story.

  “You seem disappointed in me,” said Alex.

  Adam shrugged.

  “So this story of Torah,” he said, “is merely the garment of Torah. Whoever thinks that the garment is the real Torah—may his spirit deflate! The Torah has a body; this body is clothed in garments: the stories of this world. Fools of the world look only at the garment, the story of Torah; they know nothing more. Beneath the garment is the true Torah, the soul of the soul. They do not look at what is under that garment. As wine must sit in a jar, so Torah must sit in this garment. The Zohar help
s us look under this garment. So look only at what is under the garment! So all those words and those stories—they are garments!”

  Adam said all of this in Hebrew. The only word Alex understood was Torah.

  4.

  “No, can’t stop, no way,” said Alex, stepping over the iron bed frame. “Train. And I intend to catch it.”

  But Rubinfine, Darvick and Green spread their arms and formed a wall.

  “It’s as important as hell, if you’ll pardon my French,” said Darvick, and grabbed on to the waistband of Alex’s jeans.

  “You see, the thing is that Rabbi Rubinfine,” said Green pleadingly, taking Alex’s face in his hands, “well, he has something very important to explain to you—he wants to give you his reasons. For doing what he did. Which, though essentially good, may not be immediately apparent. Do you see?”

 
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