The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith


  “Alex, what’s wrong with you? Touch wood right now.”

  “None about—I’m in business class, it’s all high-tech. Flash.”

  “Touch it.”

  “Okay, okay, chill. How about wood derivative?”

  “That’ll do.”

  Alex touched his menu, from which he had the choice of five kinds of mushroom.

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  The Bull Transcended

  1.

  It was a three-seater couch, covered in red velvet. Rabbi Darvick held one end and Rabbi Green the other, the two of them in lively conversation. As Alex approached they positioned the thing squarely in front of Mountjoy’s war memorial, placed it on the ground and sat on it.

  “And of course, the marvel is they did it all indoors,” Rabbi Green was saying, pointing at the busy road. “The whole street made from scratch!”

  It was Darvick who spotted Alex first. He stood up to shake his hand.

  “Tandem! Home! What a city, right? So! Good morning, or should I say”—he looked at a bare patch on his wrist—“good afternoon?”

  “Where’s Rubinfine?” asked Alex, looking around.

  “As a matter of fact, the rabbi has taken the car to run an errand for you,” said Green, and from his sitting position he seized Alex’s hand, which Alex did not withdraw quickly enough. “He’s gone to the Mulberry Road synagogue to talk to Rabbi Burston. About Thursday. And how things shall proceed.”

  “He didn’t have to do that,” said Alex irritably. “I could have done that.”

  “Yes, of course,” said Green, smiling. “Only you didn’t.”

  The clock above the station struck noon, and an unruly crocodile of schoolboys passed under it. The trees, newly cut back, thrust their twisted fists into the air. Alex could see that it was Mountjoy, only it was outlined and strange to him, more sharply defined, as if he had just left an optician.

  “You look bad,” said Darvick, whistling. “Jet lag. Better sit down for a moment.”

  “Actually, I’m just nipping to the shops—”

  “Sit down a moment, please,” said Green, and patted a space on the sofa between him and Darvick. Alex complied, but sat cross-legged and kept his eyes set on his feet.

  “We—Rabbi Green and I—we will be joining the minyan on Thursday evening, did you know that?” said Darvick, placing a hand on Alex’s knee. “As will many of your friends. At every side, familiar faces.”

  “That’s great,” said Alex, trying to remember the brand of dog food Kitty had sent him out for. “Really. I appreciate it a lot, because, you know, a minyan with fewer than ten people, it’s not really on. It’s not kosher. As I understand it. So, thanks. Tell Rubinfine thanks.”

  “It’s much better than that other stuff, for you,” said Darvick, in a conspiratorial whisper. “This is true faith. This is getting something done.”

  “Yes. I see that,” said Alex, rising to go.

  “Living,” said Green, his voice gaining the pitch of quotation, “is the little that is left over from dying. Do you know the poet?”

  “I don’t read poetry, Rabbi. I can’t find the time.”

  “Attend to the dead,” said Green, in a quite different, frosty tone.

  “I’ll do what’s required of me,” said Alex, with equal froideur.

  “And how’s that book of yours?” inquired Darvick, very jolly in his voice, but unmoving in every other way. “The one about this is the opposite of that, yada yada and so on.”

  “I got tired of it, finished it,” said Alex, performing a mock salute before walking away.

  BACK INDOORS, HE PASSED her a coffee and apologized once again for his flat. “In Iran,” said Kitty brightly, “I live in a tent for three weeks. In Ethiopia, a building made out of nothing, of animal waste! You don’t know, but I am a great traveler. When the movies were finished I drag my third husband around the globe from boredom. Your bedroom is no great adventure, believe me. The only thing we want to know, Lucia and I, is the whereabouts of this famous cat of yours.”

  “I can’t explain to you,” said Alex, taking the seat opposite her, getting her in frame, “how bizarre it is, to have you sitting there. Right there. Just there.”

  Kitty drew her legs up into her armchair and shook her head.

  “What is bizarre? Think of it like a grandmother comes to stay. And now, please, stop this avoidance—where is this Jewish cat? You talk about her so vigorously in the taxi! I sense the possibility,” she said, nodding at Lucia, busy running a frenzied circle round the coffee table after a broken-necked cloth mouse of Grace’s, “of a friendship between opposites, yin and yang, which is something—”

  But here the telephone in the hall demanded attention, and Kitty with adamant hands motioned him out of the room.

  “Alex,” said Adam’s voice, as if he had found him in a maze. “Back. And in time. We’re having lunch. Joseph’s on his way from the office to pick you up.”

  “Joseph? What? No, I can’t go for lunch, Ads—I’m busy. I’m completely—no, look—can I call you later, or something?”

  Three thuds came through the earpiece, Adam striking his phone against the table in frustration.

  “Hello? Mr. Gaylord? No, you can’t call me later. It’s lunch. It’s a summit meeting, I’ve called it—and everyone’s coming. Including Grace—you’ve got to pick her up, we’ve had enough of each other. It’s too late, anyway, Joseph’ll be at yours any minute—”

  “No, Ads, listen, I can’t—lunch is just not—I’ve got to—well, see Esther, apart from anything—” began Alex, and had the unpleasant realization that this was the first time he had considered her since he landed.

  “She’s napping at home. Let her sleep. Come to lunch.”

  “Look, a sort of thing has happened. I’ve got to talk to you—”

  “You’re talking to me.”

  “In person.”

  “Then come to bloody lunch!”

  The phone switched to its humiliating monotone.

  “Go, of course,” said blushing Kitty, the second he appeared at the door. “Go to lunch. I am so jet-lagged I was soon to excuse myself, anyway. Please, go, go. Take Lucia—she goes crazy for a walk. She is terribly overexcited.”

  Compulsively apologizing, Alex gripped the banister and watched Kitty climb the stairs. Lucia, scuttling behind her, got halfway up before he grabbed her round her middle, pressed her to his chest and with one hand held her mouth shut.

  “Just so. Be a man with her, otherwise she does not take seriously anything. Her lead is hanging from the banister.”

  The doorbell, in which the battery was coming loose, gave out its strangulated whine.

  “Whose dog is that?” asked Joseph. He wore a gray suit with a long black coat and a black briefcase. His hair was slicked back; he was absolutely clean-shaven. He looked like an undertaker.

  “Mine,” said Alex, affixing the lead. “I felt it was time. For a dog.”

  “Interesting decision,” said Joseph, closing the door behind them. “Good to see you both. What’s his name?”

  “Endelmann.”

  “Pretty.” Joseph walked down the path and opened the front gate. “Come on, Endelmann, let’s go, there’s a good boy.”

  The three of them crossed the street.

  “Surprise,” said Joseph without inflection, and walked directly to the driver’s side of a perfectly beautiful red MG. He put his key in the lock.

  Alex picked Lucia up, pressing his and the dog’s head up to the window.

  “Joseph, whose car is this?”

  “Yours,” replied Joseph, opening the door. He paused, looked up and over Alex’s head. “Alex, who’s that old woman at your window?”

  “You know . . .” said Alex vaguely, waving back to Kitty, who was waving at Lucia, “Mum’s mum. Like, my grandmother. Whose car is this?”

  “Yours. Shall we go round one more time, or is that enough?”

  “Fixed?” murmured Alex, stepping back from it
as Lucia dived to the ground and sniffed the wheels.

  “No, new. Adam is a prophet. He insured the old one three weeks ago, with me, at Heller’s. He didn’t tell you, because he wanted you to stew for a while. And he got this relatively cheap, I understand, so there’s some money left over. For a religious man he has a business nose. I’m going to drive it, you take shotgun—jet lag and heavy machinery don’t go. We’ll have the top down, don’t you think? And rap music, yes?”

  “It’s immoral, of course,” said Alex a few minutes later, as they passed down Mountjoy’s high street to appreciative looks. “The whole idea of insurance. Things break. People die. It’s paganism, basically. Insurance is like this mystic rite we throw at the inevitable.”

  “You’re wrong. Part of the inevitable,” said Joseph, taking a right turn, “is the need for compensation. It’s a sin to get it, but an act of faith to want it. That’s where God is. In the wanting.”

  “But it’s still a lie,” said Alex, stubbornly.

  “It’s a moment of grace, like your health, or a woman. It’s not yours by right—it’s a loan, a partial repayment on the everyday misery.”

  “Where are we going?” asked Alex, grumpy and out of practice as far as a Jewish argument was concerned.

  The rapper on the stereo explained how he felt about the Real. He was attached to it. He’d never give it up.

  Alex put his foot on Lucia’s backside to make her sit still down there. “Why lunch, anyway?”

  “Russian restaurant in the East. Lunch because it’s been a while, I suppose. Because you wait for one and three come along at once. Because Adam’s learning Russian. Because if it doesn’t rain, it pours. Et cetera.”

  “It’d be nice to get a bit of forewarning. Instead of being bloody summoned. How’s Boot?” Alex asked cruelly, and looked away. Joseph blushed.

  “There was never any progression,” he said quietly. “I wrote her a few letters. The more I write, the less physical resolve I seem to have. I’ve only embarrassed myself in that department, if that pleases you.”

  “ ’Course it doesn’t please me,” muttered Alex, suddenly ashamed. “Seems a pity, really. She’s nice, Boot. What is it, anyway, with you and women? Never seems to get off the ground.”

  To this there was no reply. Alex turned a little in his seat and watched the walking people get sucked backwards into where they had just been. Lucia yapped.

  “I don’t know what’s been wrong with you and me lately,” said Alex at last. “You’ve been acting . . . just weird.”

  Joseph smiled bitterly. He tapped his fingers on the leather wheel.

  “We’ve turned into abstractions of each other, it’s obvious,” he said, rather high-handedly. “We fear each other as symbols of one thing or another. We don’t tell the truth.”

  “Look, it’s exactly that sort of thing,” said Alex, exasperated. “That’s just what I’m talking about. I don’t know what you mean. Part of the problem is the way you express yourself. We used to be friends. There was none of . . . this. It used to be easy, between us.”

  “I used to be an Autograph Man,” said Joseph coolly, adjusting his wing mirror. “And that dog has no male genitalia. And your grandmother died the day the Germans marched into Paris.”

  He turned his eyes completely from the road to look at Alex.

  “Well, I think you resent me,” said Alex evenly, not looking back, brazening the moment out, “because I don’t suffer like you or something. Specially recently. You’ve completely had it in for me, like I’m being judged. And punished. I feel like you’re furious at me for being able to do this thing, to do this thing that I love, well, at least, if I don’t exactly love it, you know . . . it’s something I can tolerate. And I know you loved to do it, I mean it was you who started me—and now you’re stuck in that office. But that’s not my fault, Joe. That’s not my bloody fault.”

  One of Alex’s words hung infuriatingly in the air, as surely as if he had placed it in a cartoon bubble. And now Joseph took one hand off the wheel and laid it speculatively over Alex’s, restoring, with this one touch, a knowledge Alex had possessed from the beginning. A responsibility he had never wanted, never been equal to.

  “It’s the opposite of resentment,” said Joseph, in a low, breaking voice. “It’s wonder. You don’t see it. You have the power with things. I document the acts of God. I give out the insurance when things mess up. But you’re in the world, with things. You sell them, you exchange them, you deal with them, you identify them, name them, categorize them”—Alex freed his hand and slapped the dashboard in protest, amazed, as most people would be, by another man’s laudatory description of the accident we call our lives—“you write a bloody book about them. I’m sort of horrified by it, actually—you’re so determined to shape what to me is fundamentally without any shape—and the joke is, you don’t even realize it. You always go on about despair, but you don’t even know what color it is. You have Esther, apart from anything else. You have someone. Try,” said Joseph, with a choking laugh, “fifteen years of unrequited.”

  “There are a million other girls in the—”

  “Unrequited,” repeated Joseph, loudly. “For a man who barely knows you’re alive. Try that.”

  They stopped at the traffic lights. The larger part of Alex had always stood resistant to any story in which he was not the victim, but now the stone rolled away from the mouth of the cave and he looked in. An indigo parade of memories went by with the cross traffic, snapshots of a passionate, difficult friendship, performed almost entirely in gesture over the years (as two boys in a red bathroom, bent over a sink full of developing photographs; as teenagers, pressing up against the purple velvet rope outside a cinema, clutching the brass posts, waiting for a star; as men, turning simultaneously the pages of two green leather-bound albums, exchanging this for that and back again). In all these reminiscences Joseph seemed in the edge of the frame, with his hands open, waiting for something to come to him. All that had happened these last few years was that these gestures grew further apart, less frequent and, consequently, more violent. Photographs to end the film.

  “This has been,” said Alex, bowing his head, “the weirdest week of my life.”

  Joseph let out that awful, mirthless laugh that had begun to belong to him.

  “It’s fantastic—it’s melodrama. It’s wasted on you, though. If only you knew how to dress for it. All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my close—”

  “But it’s so masochistic, Klein,” blurted Alex, feeling now the full sadness of it. “To choose me. Of all people.”

  “That’s one thing, Tandem,” said Joseph, pressing down on the pedal with a dull smile, “that you have never been. From the day I met you, however buggered you were, you were always looking for pleasure, not pain.”

  “See, that’s it again, that really irritates me—like I don’t suffer, so I’m the goy, I’m the putz—”

  “No,” said Joseph passionately, “I never said that, never felt it. Life is a negation already. It’s pointless and vain to negate the negation. I’m vain. Adam said from the start—”

  “Adam knows?”

  “Adam guessed. He sees everything. He knew when we were kids. He said I need to find somebody else to love, that’s all. It’s not an accident. It’s a decision I made, he says. A vain decision to suffer.”

  A car in front of them slowed almost to a halt, and Joseph turned again to look at Alex, who couldn’t quite bear it. Both their eyes moved stupidly to the dog.

  “How about Endelmann. He need any? Love?”

  Alex wished to all the gods he knew that Joseph would stop saying that word. He pulled Lucia up on to his lap, where she proceeded to eat the leather ball of the gearshift.

  “I would say he’s overindulged, actually.”

  “Shame,” said Joseph, pulling a hand through his hair and exhaling everything. “Okaaay,” he sighed. “Done, done, done. That’s enough for one day, I should think. Let’s try to concentrate.
Look out for the signs now. We’re looking for anything that says ‘To the East.’ ”

  2.

  “That?” said Joseph, slipping into the crescent booth. “That is Endelmann. The eunuch.”

  “Does he want to meet Grace?” queried Adam, pushing a cat carrier with his foot from under the table. “Or is he the replacement?”

  Rubinfine squeezed up to let Alex in on his left. He was wearing a pair of tight jeans, gruesome in their restrictions, and a jumper advertising the 1989 Mountjoy Israeli Dance Championships in which he met Rebecca and took third place.

  “Am I just being an appalling cultural philistine,” Rubinfine asked the assembled, “or can I mention that there’s a raw egg floating in this soup?”

  “Alex,” said Adam, and reached impetuously across the table. Alex gave him his hands.

  “Ads. How are you?”

  “Good. You look good, man. I think you’re going to like this restaurant. The waiters are real Russians. I don’t think they’ve ever had a person of the Negro persuasion in here before. I ordered the starters—one of them almost fell in the borscht when I opened my mouth—oh, look, here we are; okay, okay, beer, is it? Beer, Joseph? Izvinitye . . . da, okay, dva botillky peevo, pojalsta . . . spasibo, spasibo, da. So,” he said turning back to the table, “are we ready for Thursday?”

  “The car, Ads . . .” began Alex, but had to end there with just a smile.

  Adam shrugged. “The car is the car. The important thing is, we’re going to do this thing on Thursday, and it’s going to be wicked—really, just great—everything’s organized, you just have to turn up—we don’t even have to talk about it, we can just sit here and drink the vodka. Okay? Is that cool?”

  Alex nodded and picked a hunk of bread from a grubby china bowl, rimmed with the flaking gold-leaf pattern that appeared on every single item in the room. He took a bite from the bread and then held it up with a question as to its Russian name.

  Adam made a ridiculous explosion in his throat.

  “Why are you learning this language? There’s so much phlegm involved,” asked Rubinfine with distaste. He passed his full soup bowl back to a passing waiter.

 
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