The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith


  Catching the Bull

  1.

  Not yet! He didn’t want her caught, not yet! But the steps went up—wide, cold, mineral. Honey was already there, finger on the bell. She turned and grinned. He was on the stairs. Admiring a tuft of moss, the way it had pushed through stone. Green through the snow. Where were these steps going? He held out an arm, but Honey rang the doorbell anyway. Another step, icy. And taking him closer to a world with one less sacred thing in it. Because fans do this: they preserve something, like the swirl of color in a marble, in the solid glass of their enthusiasm. He had done that, Alex. He had kept her as perfect and particular as a childhood memory.

  A voice calls from an upper window, three stories up at least. He can see nothing. The glittering windows of these brownstones share the sun, parcel it out. She calls to say she is coming. Honey turns again, grins again. Gives him the International Gesture of well-being, the vertical thumbs.

  Alex squints at the crumbling plaster of this high-arched Roebling doorway. Then he closes his eyes. Now here is its replacement: Celebration Pictures’ grand Palladian façade, splendid in the California sunshine, a lifetime ago. It is a photograph Alex owns. At the moment it was taken, a Crawford or a Cooper swept by in a smudgy white Rolls-Royce. Three harried writers (sleeves rolled, chewing cigarettes) leant against the right-hand pillar, and a headless costume girl was cropped out of the shot. And in the foreground, a new arrival. Kitty Alexander, smiling devotedly into a deceitful wide-angle lens that loved twelve starlets altogether. Second row, third on the right.

  It’s not a famous shot, but he loved it. Because this is the beginning of her. She had recently lost her real name, Katya Allesandro (“Too Russian,” said the producer Lee J. Komsky, “and also too damn Eyetalian”), and some weight (the studio put her on its infamous ACT diet: apples, coffee and tobacco), and the first assaults were made on her extravagant accent (this last never succeeded; she remains a Russian-Italian child of Capri).

  That is the face. The one he loves. Why subject it to Buddha’s rules of impermanence? This is the face. Her forehead melts into her nose like buttermilk down a ladle, as it did on Garbo. She has the bone structure of a nymph, heart-shaped and high-cheekboned. Her eyes are green, her hair is black and bobbed. Her plucked brows can’t hide their natural soulful curve, like two sighing bridges over Italian water. That face can and will play everything from disenfranchised Russian princess to flighty Parisian ballerina to Chinese immigrant. Maybe it is precisely the fluidity of the face that stops her from being a star of the first order. It is a face that will do whatever you ask of it, so full of gesture and movement that the critics will offer the futile, consolatory comment that the silents died too early, before their greatest star was out of her nursery. It is a face, as Hedda Hopper had it (the alliteration itself brings on nostalgia!), to be conjured with, it is made of magic, and it is no more.

  2.

  “Max? But you are not Max. Where is Max now? Are you coming from Max?”

  The sun is everywhere, a cosmic spotlight, and she grabs his sleeve, a firm grip. Her face, folded over many times, still makes sense. She remains a beautiful woman. Her makeup is not too much, only a little cornflower blue flaking from the eyelids. There is no hotel robe, no black silk Parisian slippers with the exploded-dandelion toes. No sign of the white, queenly towel wrapping a steeple of wet hair. Instead, a simple pair of high-waisted jeans with red sneakers and black shirt. The swell of her breasts is weird, youthful. She has one plain clip in her thin, but still bobbed, gray hair. The sole embellishment is the fabulous brooch that has landed on her throat, a ruby-encrusted butterfly.

  “Do you know something about computers? I am trying to send the message and I do as I am told, all the instructions that I have, and I cannot—I don’t know what is it, but something is not correct. I must have done something, God knows what. Can you imagine? That I am having to fuss with this all afternoon by myself—Max walks Lucia, so, that is this, I suppose, can you imagine?”

  “Miss Alexander?” asked Honey, with a fantastic smile, and bent in towards her, for Kitty was small, smaller than one would imagine, as they always are.

  Kitty looked up, confused, her palm still pressed to Alex’s wrist. Her skin here was puffy and risen, like pastry. Alex’s leg was doing something uncontrollable. So was the city. The city was carrying on—he couldn’t stop it. A boy in the street punched another boy in the arm even though the boy didn’t exist and neither did his friend. And Alex saw it happen. And he could see her. This time there was no glass between them. The viewing was not one-way. She could see him too. She was inspecting both him and Honey: a shrewd, amused study.

  “Yes,” answered Kitty, genially, “Yes, this is of course my name. But I think I don’t know you—I would remember, you are very striking—so, I am sorry you must leave now, unless you have some idea of computers and you are not a psychopathic killer or the like, which you could say—but how would I believe?”

  She laughed quickly, and touched a shaking, involuntary finger to Honey’s forearm.

  “I think it is when Lucia goes,” she confided, “I lose my concentration and things get unnecessarily complicated, and I tell Max, I can walk, I’m not an invalid, but the truth is that he is in love with Lucia himself a little, he is her paramour—or so I imagine, but look at me, eesh!” She released both of them, Honey and Alex, and brought her fluttering hands up to the delicate hollows of her cheeks. “It is too cold, here, really, I cannot stand like this on the step to chew fat or otherwise to talk of Jesus and this sort of thing, so I say good-bye, I don’t mean to be impolite, of course, but please excuse me—”

  For Alex, speech was another minute away. It was Honey who put her hand to the door frame.

  “Miss Alexander, my name’s Honey Richardson. We’re here to see you.”

  To this, Kitty made that superb little oof! of Russian exasperation and clasped her hands together.

  “I understand this, but my dear . . . I am not here to be seen. I assure you, Jesus and I, we are—how do you say? Entirely strange to each other.” She gave a guileless smile of finality and took a step backwards, inwards, letting the door fall to.

  “But I’m Alex-Li Tandem,” said Alex-Li Tandem, and it swung back, like one of those doors in the old tales that are meant for only one man, for only one man’s name will open them.

  ON THE STAIRS, the most that Alex could manage was to tell himself over and over that those are stairs, and these are my legs, and this action is called climbing. In the tight, mirrored hallway, he regressed back to physical mantra: don’t touch, make space, step back. Reaching the lounge, he took a preparatory breath—but she had already left the room, insisting on making coffee. Honey yes’d and no’d to the questions of milk and sugar called out from an unseen kitchen. Tandem attempted orientation. He was here. He was here. There was no feeling of disappointment. It was (as he had foreseen!) a home for European trinkets, rescued (he imagined) from fire and theft and revolution. It was the home of a collector. It had its New York touches, of course—capacious windows, indecipherable, modish art (from this lounge he could see down the mirrored hallway, straight through a bedroom to a New York bathroom, white-tiled, with ancient, leaky shower fitting and aquamarine verdigris steadily eating the copper taps), but its heart, this was resolutely Old World. An imposing stone Buddha, as big as an eight-year-old, sat by the doorway, bearing the loss of its nose with great fortitude. A wire-and-silk lotus flower rested in its lap. A girl in an etching looked over her shoulder. The likenesses of dogs were everywhere—shaped as bookends, embodied in ornaments, embroidered on pillows, painted on mugs—and then when one looked again they resolved themselves into the one dog, one aristocratic breed: a stubby-legged, cream-colored baton with abbreviated black snout, bulbous eyes and crumpled forehead. Two mahogany cabinets with mother-of-pearl trim stood opposite each other on eight wooden paws. Everywhere white linen throws, Arabic arches and Venetian prints, beaten-thin cowhide rugs, and pink silk s
hot through cream pillows, unraveling. Ornate silver mirrors hung at dipping angles, seeming to catch the room just before it fell through the floor. Everything made with care and handled with same. Alex thought of his days and the rooms they had always been spent in, where the furniture came packed flat, requiring cajoling before it would stand upright and live. Now he was in her room, her days. Because they were just as he had anticipated, he began to feel very calm. His Zen came over him. Honey was fumbling with a magazine; his own hands were still. Soon, Kitty would come in here and they would talk and it would be as it would be. Spring comes, grass grows by itself.

  Then the sound of a minor calamity of china from the kitchen.

  “I should help?” whispered Honey, and sprang up with her two sets of glass twins, hurried down the mirrored hall and multiplied again, accompanied now by an infinite amount of doppelgänger Honeys, companions.

  TIME MOVED FORWARDS.

  “But I am telling it backwards!” Kitty complained, and put another sugar, her third, into the cup. For a few minutes she had been talking very quickly and (or so it seemed to Alex) in a number of languages. Now, finally, she stopped fussing, and fell into an armchair. She sat like a much younger woman, with one bare foot tucked underneath her and one knee drawn up to her chin. Alex and Honey sat on a neighboring sofa. Now she beamed at them. Alex couldn’t be certain which face he did back. She picked up a hair clasp from an empty silver fruit bowl on the coffee table, brought her hair up behind her and fastened it in a tiny tight bun with this clasp, which she took from her teeth.

  “Wait, wait,” she said, and pulled a curl forward to frame her face. “First things are first. Alex-Li Tandem! Alex-Li Tandem. I cannot believe it is you. I am such a fan of yours, truly. But you are not at all what I expected. Not at all. And meanwhile, I think I sit just as you wrote it, no? One leg up, one leg down . . .” She glanced down at herself and then back at him with a look that only magicians and doctors rightfully deserve. “How could you know a thing like this!”

  Alex opened his mouth, but Kitty smacked her hands together and caught whatever he had to say between them.

  “And this one, you remember? Dear Kitty, She is very proud of her feet and touches them often. When standing she feels the air under her arch and stubbornly believes she could have been a dancer. Love, Alex-Li Tandem. True, completely! It is my biggest vanity, my feet,” she laughed, extending her left and pointing the toes to the ceiling. “Applause you deserve for this!” she said and began to clap. Honey joined in at a sardonic pace. Alex, who had no experience with applause, sat and smiled stupidly towards it. His knee was going again. Kitty stopped, moved forward and put both hands on it.

  “Nervous. Don’t be. Silly to be, please,” she murmured, and her face suggested she understood him all the way through, to the marrow, as we all want to be understood. Alex, so grateful for this, wanted to nod but couldn’t. Any movement of the head might cause chaos in the tear ducts. A small bell chimed somewhere in the room. Alex found himself meditating on the gold-green spine of a gardening book. Kitty smiled at Honey and Honey smiled back. What had begun as an incidental silence between them all began stretching across the room like a tarpaulin.

  “You know,” began Honey, but Kitty had spoken at the same moment. Honey laughed, Kitty laughed.

  “No, I was just—” said Honey.

  “Please,” said Kitty, and put her coffee cup to her lips.

  Across the street, a sash window slammed shut. Alex put his hand up, something he hadn’t done since school.

  “I have to—I mean, you must let me—” he began, and thought with pain of what this speech had always been in his head, how glorious, how crystalline. “No, start again—what I mean is—I’d really like to say—without, you know, going on—just how much I’ve admired you—I mean, not just like for the films—but more, you know, as a person who—”

  Kitty took a deep, exasperated breath. “Oh, no, no, no, no,” she said with amazement. “You must know I don’t care for any of this. Pfui! You write better than you speak, I think. But of course our dear Sirin said this was true of all the great writers, and he should’ve known. He was a great friend of my third husband. Now. Cookie?”

  Alex shook his head. His mouth had taken on its six-in-the-morning state. So dry you just can’t be sure if the words will come.

  “What I was trying to say,” continued Kitty happily, “though I get it backwards—look: I start again. I am trying to tell you about your letters, because I think the story is very unusual. Because you see, I get almost no letters ever on this topic. I mean, letters concerning my cinematic career”—she snorted at this—“if you can give it such a grand name. A few maybe, once a year from the Oscar people—when they remember. But I don’t care for any of it really. My life has moved on—I mean, I hope it has moved on, I flatter myself it has, at least.”

  Here she made a movement very familiar to Alex. It was from the dressing-room scene, in which May-Ling begs the stage manager to make her an understudy. A quick forward thrust of her head, chin up, eyes pleading—and then an impossibly poignant retraction. Everything back in its box, including all feelings. Alex knew the next line (“I’m sorry, I just can’t do it, honey”) and thought for a moment he might say it.

  “Besides,” continued Kitty brightly, and with that air of ingenuous, childlike egotism that belongs to those who are used to an audience’s attentions, “it is like a garden, celebrity. It requires tending, do you see? I am seventy-seven now—I have only one kidney left. I have already had the cancer, and by some miracle I keep my treasures”—she placed both hands on her breasts—“but I cannot always be so lucky. I have to get on with things while the time is here—I have time to tend a garden full of weeds? And more than this: to do as Max says, to pretend the garden takes care of itself?”

  Honey, who had long lost the thread of this metaphor, nodded eagerly. She took a biscotto from the tiny china plate that Kitty was holding up to her and chewed around the edge of one with that unique ineptitude we bring to food we do not recognize.

  “I want to thank you for—” began Alex, and then closed his eyes and tried again. “The autographs. Thank you for doing th—”

  Kitty whooped, and put two fingers over his lips.

  “My God, don’t be ridiculous! The least I could do—but still you don’t let me explain, so let me explain. And so then recently some bad things have been happening here—this we will come to in a moment—but because of this bad things, you see, I don’t like to be alone in the apartment. And on this night, three weeks ago, somehow, I get a panic!” she said, her face re-creating the feeling. “I don’t know why—I think I hear a thing on the stairs, I get a little crazy—and so I call for a car and Lucia and I, we go into Manhattan, to Max’s, and we have a key of course, but there is no sign of Max. Probably,” she said sotto voce to Honey, “in one of these strange bathing places where they have all the sex with barmen they see never before . . . anyway, this is not my business. . . . It was very late and cold, and I did not wish to go all the way back, I’m not so young to be gallivanting around New York. So I am in Max’s and I eat and Lucia eats and we wait, wait, wait, and nothing and we get rather bored, can you imagine? In this little, so dirty apartment which I have not been in in maybe ten years and Lucia has never been! So we are bored, and we nose around a little. And to make it short, this is where we find you! Lucia finds, actually. In cupboards in the kitchen—hundreds of these things! I never before seen or heard of these. Every one: Alex-Li Tandem, Alex-Li Tandem, Alex-Li Tandem—going back to I don’t know when. Almost all the envelopes closed. Unread! And so I open, naturally, because they are for me. They are for me. And what is inside . . . oh, it was so beautiful. . . .”

  She kept talking, Kitty. Alex was being praised. He was great and talented. Something he had written had affected someone, as surely as if he’d pushed them over with his hands. All this was said. And he heard the noise of it, the way she sang it, but it meant nothing to him.
For thirteen years he had believed he had an audience, even if it was only Krauser, reading them and tearing them up. He had heard of those perfect Zen artists who write their books and paint their pictures with no expectation of audience, and set fire to their work when they are finished. But that is a choice they make.

  Kitty stood up and moved to one of her dog-footed cabinets, took a small key from her jeans pocket and began fiddling with the lock. The front rucked, folding like a wooden fan, and a writing desk was revealed, ten slim drawers either side. These she began to open, looking for something.

  “Wait—you never saw any of my letters?” asked Alex with what was left of his voice. “In all that time?”

  “Never! This is what I say. I am not so grand to ignore so many letters.”

  Alex was turning a funny shade of purple. Honey put her hand on his and gave it a supportive squeeze. “I don’t understand,” said Honey. “You mean he never showed them to you?”

  “Exactly. This is it, exactly. He hid them, I think. Can you imagine!” she said, and tutted, as if at a child’s foible.

  “But didn’t you ask him?” pressed Honey. “Didn’t you ask him why?”

  “No, I don’t ask him. He doesn’t know I found them—I abhor this, anyway, this theatrical exposure. Terribly cruel thing, I think, to reveal somebody like this, like it is television or something horrible. But of course I wonder why he would do . . . Ah, now, here we are.”

  From a drawer Kitty took a small bundle of letters in Alex’s pink envelopes. She rested an elbow against her defunct fireplace. “They are so lovely, really. I read almost all of them—it did not take very long, they are so brief. I took a few only, so he doesn’t notice. I like this very much: Dear Kitty, Whenever she hugs children she looks over their little shoulders to the parents and smiles to prove she does not hate children. Love, Alex-Li Tandem. This is too perfect! This is what I do, always!”

  Alex tried to smile.

  “I wish so much,” she said, “I could have found them before, when my third husband was alive. He was a painter. Maybe you know of him?”

 
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