The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith


  But after the kid stuff was finished, the business got done. The business was everywhere. The mood turned from carnival to conference. You couldn’t cross the room without making a deal or overhearing one done. People Alex had met only virtually appeared before him now in hideous material form: Freek Ulmann from Philadelphia, Albie Gottelmeyer from Denmark, Pip Thomas from Maine, Richard Young from Birmingham. All these people now had their bodies, their faces. He traded with them all, listened to them. They needed to talk. Maybe the business itself was simply an excuse for this need. Alex learnt of the dissatisfactions of wives in towns he had never visited and never wanted to. The grade averages of various children passed under review. Richard Young told him he could never truly love a flat-chested woman, no matter how kind she might be to him. A stranger called Ernie Popper told him that most days he wished he were dead.

  Familiar faces too. Alex and Lovelear ran into Baguley, negotiating to buy, of all things, a forged Kitty from a notorious Swedish crook. At the point Alex arrived, each man believed himself to be on the verge of pulling off a magnificent sting. The Swede knew he was selling a fake. Baguley thought he was buying the real thing for a steal.

  “The Swede,” said Baguley, turning from the stall and stage-whispering in Alex’s ear, “is a total dullard. Used to be a bloody gynecologist. Before that he rode a bike or something. Doesn’t know a thing. Doesn’t realize what he’s got. Found four Kittys in an attic, some old director’s house—doesn’t even know who she is! He’s going to take eight hundred dollars each Kitty and be none the wiser. Marvelous.”

  “Ah, Mr. Tandem,” said the Swede, with a terror-stricken flick of his strawberry-blond head, “the expert. Good to see you. And you are well?”

  Weighing up his dislike for these men, Alex decided to give the break to the Swede.

  “Fine. I’m fine. And that’s a very fine Alexander. Very nice piece. Lucky Baguley.”

  “Yes, yes, I am glad you think so.” The Swede padded at his sweaty face with a monogrammed handkerchief on which an H and an I wrapped around each other. “Baguley is indeed lucky.”

  “The rumor’s going round,” drawled Baguley, pushing the brim of his hat up with a finger, “that you’re in New York to find her. Find Kitty. That’s the rumor. I’ve got ten bob says you’ll be arrested at the gates. She’ll set the dogs—”

  “Hey,” yelled Alex across the room. “Hey.” He could see Honey over by the Suffragette table, flicking through a wine box of filed postcards.

  “Who you waving at?” asked Lovelear, turning. “Dove out there?”

  Alex caught her eye; she grinned at him and raised her hand; but then her face altered. The smile vanished, that look of terrible injury returned; she turned her back, hurried through a tourist group of kindly oval women from the Midwest. She disappeared into a room dedicated to that popular disaster, the sinking of RMS Titanic.

  “What the—” began Lovelear.

  “That’s so weird. . . . I had a meeting with her an hour ago—I really thought we—”

  “Rewind: you know Honey Smith?” She’d lied to Alex about her name!

  “Honey who? That’s Honey Richardson. That’s the dealer I met this morning.”

  The Swede cupped his hands to his mouth and guffawed like an English schoolboy.

  “Honey Smith—this is a name I do not hear in a while. Boy, the Swedes loved that story, yes sir, they did. Though personally I would have paid her more, yes? Twenty-five does not seem very much. He had much money, of course.”

  “You do know,” said Baguley, eagerly, “that she’s in the business now? Yes, yes. A colleague of mine bought a Fatty Arbuckle off her in Berlin. My hand on my heart. Said she did him under the bloody table too. Lucky bastard.”

  “I just saw her, man,” squealed Lovelear, pointing at the space where she had been. “I swear to God it was her. Tandem was waving to her! Tandem’s getting the goods from Honey Smith! Tandem, are you boning Honey Smith? She’s like the most famous whore in the world. Okay, so I need the whole story now.”

  The name gave up its secret. Alex recalled the two mugshots: the ruffled Scottish actor, squinting in the flashbulb, the hooker, unbowed, familiar with this kind of camera. Front page for a week? Two weeks? And then it had struggled on for a time in all its lurid installments: her story, his, the girlfriend’s, the pimp’s, the public’s, the confessional interview, and then, finally, the tidy resolution: her return to obscurity.

  3.

  Hotel rooms are the godless places. You don’t care for anything in there. Nothing in there cares for you. In his room, drunk, lonely Tandem phoned home. But in Mountjoy it was five A.M.—the resilient silence of answering machines. On Esther’s machine, he sang “All the Things You Are” in four different keys to avoid high notes; on Rubinfine’s he grew offensive and then, on Adam’s, grossly sentimental. Joseph picked up, but by then Alex had become ashamed. He opened his mouth and nothing happened. Joseph put the phone down. It got late. After drinking everything it contained, Tandem approached the final phase of his relationship with his minibar: surreal optimism. He was reaching out for a chilled can of caramelized peanuts when there was a knock at the door. He was expecting a neighboring irate Christian (sex was on the television at high volume), but through the spyhole saw a convex Honey, all forehead and eyeballs, looming out from the hall on a pair of tiny feet. Alex hunted for his trousers, the remote control. He switched the channel. She knocked again, louder.

  “I don’t think it’s polite to keep a lady—”

  “Hi,” said Alex, lunging for the door handle, fastening his fly. “Honey. Hi. It’s late.”

  “Now, you. . . .” she whispered, narrowing her eyes for confirmation of her initial diagnosis, “you’re drunk. Yes you are. Don’t even try to deny it. You’re a drunk.”

  “You’re a Buddhist.”

  “You’re a Jew.”

  “That’s a chair,” said Alex, pointing to the fold-up director’s chair in Honey’s rubber hand. She was wearing red satin Chinese pajamas, her hair parted in the middle and drawn back in two thick plaited ropes.

  “I always bring my own. Step aside.”

  She walked unsteadily past him and unfolded the chair in front of the television. It said HONEY on its back-supporting canvas strip. She sat down. Alex perched on the end of the bed, a few feet from her.

  “So,” he said.

  “I thought I told you,” said the television, “you’re off this damn case. You’re too close to it, McLaine.”

  “Got any liquor?” asked Honey.

  Alex tried to think. “No . . . noooo, actually—wait . . . wait . . . maybe. Maybe . . . red. In the cupboard? There’s wine, small size, definitely wine, though. . . . Yes, wine. Two of them! Screw cap—hurrah! Just unscrew . . . this . . . like this . . .”

  “Got any glasses? Actually, forget it. This is fine.”

  Honey took her bottle and put it to her mouth in such a way that one couldn’t help but have thoughts. Her eyes wheeled round the room, as if she had just this moment recognized she was not in her own.

  “Little bigger than mine. Smells funny. What’s that? Stuck up by the door.”

  “Um . . . a note. A bill. English money. Thing my father gave me.”

  “All my father ever gave me was a concussion,” said Honey dramatically, and drank half her bottle in one swig.

  “Honey, was there something—”

  “Shhh. I like this guy, this guy’s good. He’s got range.”

  In silence they watched the last twenty-five minutes of a film. Unsustainable ideas of sex floated in and out of Alex’s head, none of them very determined.

  “Anything else on?” she asked, as the moody saxophone played and the credits replaced a city skyline.

  “Well, of course there’s something else on. . . . There’s something like seventy-two channels. Look, Honey—”

  “Why bother with painful exercise routines?” asked the television.

  “Honey,” said Alex, switchi
ng it off, “it’s awfully late. Did you want to . . . talk about something? Or something?”

  “Well,” said Honey, talking to the wall, “I sucked this famous dick once—caused a whole lot of fuss—but I guess you heard that about, I mean, about that, today.”

  The silence that followed seemed like an Alice-hole they were falling through, the two of them tumbling after something curious. Honey closed her eyes for a moment and out of each came a weighty tear.

  “Remember me now?” she said finally.

  “Honey, I really don’t—”

  “Want my autograph? See, trick is to get mine on a corner of a big old sheet of paper and then go door-stop the actor in Marr-lee however you say it, in London, and get him to sign the same piece without him knowing? That goes for a hundred dollars. Me by myself—doesn’t push much more than twenty-five.”

  He had not noticed until now how intensely drunk she was. She wore only one glove. He was reminded of Lady Day in those final recording sessions—eyeballs out of control, lip hitched up for a fight.

  “Yep. Been on TV and everything. Talk shows. Made a movie.” She dealt with those two tears now, clamping one hand to her chin and smearing them across her fingers. “Actually, sounded like you were watching my movie when I knocked. I understand it plays a lot in hotel rooms.” She laughed darkly and clapped her hands.

  “You know Richard Young?” she asked, taking a whiskey miniature from her pocket and unscrewing it. “Meticulous son of a bitch? English? Jewish? His pants are always just so. Real successful.”

  Alex filed through the faces he had met today and came up with a black-haired, handsome, careful young man who had about him the air of the wunderkind, a quality that depressed Tandem beyond measure now that his own wunderkind days were behind him.

  “From Birmingham. Yeah, he’s up and coming. He’s got a fantastic collection, Rich.”

  “Yeah, well, Rich heard from some guy who heard from some other guy who heard from some asshole that you’re in New York to find Kitty Alexander. Kit-ty Al-ex-ander. Zat true?”

  Alex tried to gulp at his wine in a carefree way, and sent it on a catastrophic journey down his T-shirt. “Ug . . . You know . . . It’s just . . . she sent me an autograph. It’s not really . . . it’s not a big deal. It’s not like I came here to find her. It’s not like that. I’m not some lunatic stalker. I just wanted to thank her for it. I’m just another fan.”

  Honey stuck an improbably curved nail in his face. “No, no, no—biggest fan—that’s what I heard. An’ I must say I was surprised. You don’t seem like a fan of anything to me. I thought you were totally Zen—you know, rising above it all.”

  Honey stood up and stumbled towards the window, stepping ineptly over the repeating monograms. She rested against the curtain and pointed out.

  “Lives in Brooklyn. I grew up in Brooklyn. Sunday sitting on the stoop. Everybody knew who you were. Before church, after church . . .”

  “I’m going to make some coffee, I think,” said Alex, crawling up the bed and stretching for the kettle on his side table.

  “More people know you than you know people. . . . See, that’s all it is. Ain’t nothing more than that, really. It’s for amputee people. That’s all. I’ll tell you what’s messed up, too. In my neighborhood, I’m a celebrity. Do you believe that? In certain areas of Brooklyn, I’m Elizabeth Taylor.”

  “I met her once,” said Alex, missing the electrical socket for the plug and falling off the bed.

  Honey swiveled on her heel, and laughed until she needed the bathroom. Soon he could hear her vomiting in there, despite the sound of running taps. He stood at the door with a towel and offered to help, but she wouldn’t let him in.

  After that, they had coffee. Talked until the light came over the city in two incoherent stages, electric orange followed by a thin, sulky blue. Honey didn’t believe in abortion anymore, although she used to. Alex thought televised charities were run by crooks. Honey didn’t see why she should touch things if she didn’t know where they came from. Alex couldn’t see the point of fake nails or figure skating. Honey thought there was something weird about English children. They both wondered why there had to be so much mayonnaise on everything.

  “I know Roebling. Roebling knows me. I can show you where Roebling is, show you around,” said Honey, folding up her chair.

  “Fine. You’re on.”

  “Huh? I’m on what?” asked Honey.

  “Let’s do it,” said Alex-Li.

  CHAPTER THREE

  Perceiving the Bull

  1.

  In the event, Honey reversed the plan. Practically minded, she voted for the Lower East Side first, to find Krauser, and then on to Roebling. Despite its map proportions, she remembered Roebling from her working days as a complicated sprawl where the grid system employed in much of the city finds itself replaced by the ancient way of things. Chaotic roads with peculiar names, roads that dip and curve and hide the door numbers of apartments from the public view.

  “And it’s cold as hell out there,” said Honey, pulling on some leather gloves in the lobby. “And I don’t need to be wandering around with a bitch of a hangover and no idea where we’re going. I just know this guy Krauser is going to help us out. No question. We’re going to show what a nice guy you are. We’ll charm his ass.”

  Alex continued to struggle with the zip of his duffel coat and then succumbed like a toddler when Honey, bored by the performance, gripped him firmly by the toggles, zipped him to the neck and brought the huge bear hood, trimmed with a halo of synthetic fur, over his head. Her own coat was close-fitting and camel-colored, adding and subtracting from her curves where necessary. She evened out the cord either side of her waist, tying it to the left in a bow.

  “Okay? So we done now?”

  She gave a maternal pinch to his cheek, already pink from the concierge’s premature flourish with the front doors.

  “Yes. That’s— You just touched me.”

  “Strike up the band. Whatever you got, I got it by now, anyway.”

  “I feel bad,” said Alex, as they took the fierce day full in the face, “about my . . . colleagues. Lovelear, Dove. I should at least . . .”

  Honey hooked her arm around his.

  “They got room service, right? TV? And there’s a maid to clean it up after. That’s pretty much nirvana these days. Anyway, what is this, a school outing? Two of us is plenty, already.”

  It was a five-minute walk to the subway, long enough to bring out the tourist in Alex-Li. He walked like a visitor, face to the American heavens. When a taxi sounded its horn, he looked to see why. Just before the subway’s entrance, a Japanese man in an orange boiler suit stepped out backwards from a doorway, caught his heel on a raised paving stone and dropped a crate of litchees across the sidewalk. Honey crushed a few under heel; out came their little white centers.

  “Come on, let’s get on with this,” she called back to Alex, who had meant to negotiate his way round but now took some pleasure in getting a dozen litchees in a footfall. He hurried along behind her down the subway steps. This was her city, not his. He had to give himself up to the sensation of not-knowing, of no-power. He felt like the boy who finds the treasure map and shows it to his more competent friend, seeing the X as well as he, but less able to find it.

  “Cold,” said Honey, once they were underground. “C.O.L.D. Co-o-old.”

  Opening her mouth, she made the cigar smoker’s O, releasing a cloud of steam. Along from them, on the platform, two black boys made animated hand gestures at each other, different congregations of fingers, first three fingers divided from two, then one divided from four—Alex watched them and recalled diagrams he had seen, hand gestures of the high priests in the temple.

  “You do me a favor, okay?” said Honey over the train rumble. “You lay this out”—from her bag she produced a foot-long piece of material, a miniature rug decorated with a clan’s tartan—“like, wherever you see a spare seat. I don’t like to sit directly on these
things.”

  Even in the short journey they had made thus far, Alex was thrilled to see how many people had spotted her. As the train doors closed behind them, three pairs of eyes seized her immediately. One boy made an obscene International Mime to his friend (the groping tongue in the cheek); now a girl tried to replay the flit of an image that she had seen in some quick-firing neuron. Her mouth opened, she looked away and back once more, and then, with an indiscreet, triumphal flex of the fist—she had it!—she smiled and endeavored to return to her bad novel. But her eyes wandered repeatedly off the top of the white page. Back to Honey’s famous red mouth.

  And so it went. When they got off at their stop, a gaggle of cruel-eyed schoolgirls sent one of their number leaping up the stairs, four reckless steps at a time, just to see her from the front. At street level, they crossed the intersection and bought a pretzel. She bit into it and Alex asked her: How does it feel? She stared at him for a spell, shrugged and unfolded the hotel’s complimentary map of the island.

  “This address you got here—it’s in Chinatown. Two blocks from here. We need to take a left here—yeah, a left, definitely. Okay, now,” she said, setting a quick pace, “Alex-Li wants to know. He wants to know.”

  “I want to know. Is that awful? I’m curious. Just about how it feels.”

  “Curiouser and curiouser.”

  She thrust her hands into her pockets and lengthened her stride, deliberately placing each step in the mushy imprints of an earlier stranger. No cars passed, barely any people.

  “I hate it,” she said finally. “I hate it, obviously I hate it. But it’s weird. I hate, hate, hate it, and yet . . .”

  They passed a chess game (two Russians, three dogs), got caught up in its cries and then strained to hear them. They walked another block without a word. The smell of duck was beginning. At the lights, Alex looked right, stepped out unthinkingly. Honey grabbed his wrist and saved his life.

 
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