The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith


  “Rubinfine,” said Alex, feeling a rush of goodwill and thumping him on the back, “long time. So, I hear I owe you. Thanks for organizing . . . well, Green and Darvick told me you’ve been working behind the scenes et cetera. Rabbi Burston, is that right?”

  “I do what I can,” said Rubinfine piously, lowering his head back and inadvertently knocking it lightly against a giant samovar. “He’s meant to be at a wedding that day, he’s very in demand—it wasn’t easy. Favors had to be offered.”

  Adam, never the sort of man to waste much time with table etiquette, put his butter knife into a little pot of iridescent fish eggs and delivered a line of them to his tongue.

  “Oh, good,” he said with relief. “I’m glad you don’t mind about Rabbi Burston—I mean, not that there’s any reason to mind, really—and it’s a bit of a shlep to get to, but no one in Mountjoy was really available, and he is progressive, so the women thing wasn’t an issue and we’ve got to be grateful for him doing it at short notice and all that.”

  Joseph seemed to suppress a giggle, and Alex, who was in the process of freeing Grace from her box, looked up.

  “Mind? What’s there to mind?”

  “Exactly, nothing, really—I knew you’d see it like that. Joseph, get that waiter, man—we’re going to need to get the dog something to eat other than the cat.”

  Grace was circling Alex’s lap, one paw trailing to goad Lucia. Now she stretched up and licked Alex’s nose with her tiny coarse tongue.

  “I don’t get you. Is there something wrong with Burston?”

  “But didn’t Green . . . ? Or—”

  Here a waiter with an epic jaw came and pleaded with Adam in Russian, pointing sporadically at the animals.

  “Ooh-litsa,” murmured Adam, as the waiter turned on his heel and marched back towards the kitchens. “That’s definitely ’s;treet.’ I really want to know what the long word was, though—I think it might have been zoo, or menagerie, as in, This is not a—”

  “Adam, what’s wrong with Rabbi Burston?”

  “Nothing, really,” said Joseph, his sorrowful dark eyes taking on some of the mischievousness of his boyhood. “I met him on Sunday at the barn dance and he seemed really capable, interesting. I had a conversation with him about Preston Sturges, he was really interesting on that, about Jewish subtexts in Hollywood film of the era, really sharp, I thought—”

  “What was he doing at the barn dance?”

  “Do you know what he said to me, Al?” said Adam, wiping his mouth with a napkin. “We were having the old Kabbalah debate, but he said this one fantastic thing: God is a verb. He said, ‘I’ll agree with you on one thing—God is a verb.’ That’s great, isn’t it?”

  “The man can also line-dance,” said Joseph. “Honest to God. He danced everybody else off the—”

  “He’s a midget, isn’t he?” concluded Alex, letting his chin fall to his chest.

  The table went quiet.

  “No, actually, his growth is—” began Rubinfine, but Alex held a hand up to stop him.

  “How tall? Come on, how tall?”

  “Very reasonable, mate, really,” said Adam, looking concernedly across the room at the approach of the earlier waiter and a man with a managerial forehead. “I don’t think he’s much under, like, four six?”

  Lucia ran to greet the manager, licking his shoes that smelt of the kitchen. A scene followed. Adam begged them all to stick to Russian, this being great conversational practice for him, but the manager’s face took on that look of undiluted pessimism concerning the rationality of others, a look that is every Russian’s birthright. With a shake of his wrist, he turned away a second waiter, who was heading for their table with his high-held tray of beer and blintzes.

  “And it is now,” he said, exercising the foreigner’s clout with the present tense, “that I am asking you to leave.”

  “It’ll be like a feature,” offered Joseph, once they were out on the street. “You know. No one’s likely to forget it. It’ll be memorable.”

  “It’s not a garden pond,” said Alex, stiffly, taking Grace’s box from him. “It’s Kaddish. I don’t want any features. I’m not likely to forget it, am I? I mean, am I? Really?”

  “I’m so glad to hear you say that,” said Adam, linking arms with him, pointing in the direction of other lunch possibilities.

  IT STARTED TO RAIN hard. After two restaurants refused to be arks, the sheen rubbed off lunch somehow. Joseph had to get back to work, Rubinfine wanted to buy a pair of those socks with the friction soles.

  “Am I being forsaken?” asked Adam, shaking his little dreads free of water.

  “Can I give you a lift?” said Alex, opening the door of—

  “Hey,” he said, putting Grace on the seat, “I need a new name. It’s a new car.”

  “Kitty. She was always Kitty. She was only Greta because you’re afraid of being obvious. Nothing wrong with the obvious. It’s sustaining.”

  “Oi, don’t start. It’s raining. Lift or no?”

  “No,” said Adam, drawing his coat over his head like a pantomime hunchback, “I think I’m heading other way, library. I’ll get the tube. Tell Esther I’ll be back late.”

  Alex got behind the wheel and wondered why he hadn’t told him.

  3.

  Opening the front gate for Lucia, he saw a curtain switch. He was halfway up the path when Anita Chang came down it, clutching a handbag in front of her, a clumsy prop meant to encourage the misconception that she was just on her way out.

  “Alex!” she said without pleasure.

  “Anita,” he said without hope.

  “And how did you find New York?”

  “Pilot knew the way.”

  Her fixed smile flat-lined.

  “Your dog?”

  “A dog.”

  “A dog that belongs to you?”

  “A new dog in town. Visiting friends in the area. Trying out,” said Alex, as Lucia attacked a patch where Anita was growing daffodils, “the local cuisine.”

  “I see.”

  “And I hear. And Endelmann, that’s the dog, he touches. Grace smells, but you know that. We find someone with taste, we could make a band.”

  TAKING OFF HIS COAT in the hallway, Alex heard two voices together, two opposite voices, and from such extreme poles of his mind that for a moment his brain refused to reconcile them. And then, at the threshold of the living room, the obvious stated itself: these were not voices from his brain at all but two people in the world, living. He had no business reconciling them.

  “Hey, stranger,” said Esther.

  She was stretched out on the floor before Kitty, dressed unseasonably in cream-colored culotte and a thin red cashmere vest.

  “This,” she said, lifting up on one hip, “is the most amazing woman in the world.”

  Kitty reached forward and rubbed her freshly shaved head.

  “She listens to my stories, this is all. I think she likes them. I tell her all about our meeting in New York, and your tall American friend, Harvey,” said Kitty, very pleased with this basic subterfuge. “But, Alex, you never explain she was like this, such a beauty! To look at her causes disaster—I am surprised you survive.”

  “Barely,” said Esther quietly, and with a smile, trying to give him a private look. He turned away.

  “What is this?” asked Kitty, cupping her ear.

  “She said ‘Barely,’ ” said Alex bluntly. He felt that mad cold one sometimes feels upon seeing an absent loved one, a kind of dysrecognition: Is this really her? Are we really lovers? Is this where I put all of my life? Does she know me? Do I—

  “Tea,” he said, and left the room.

  In the kitchen he put the kettle on and placed both hands on the sideboard.

  “Are you angry?”

  He turned and saw her in the doorway.

  “No, Es, of course not. ’S just—”

  She folded her arms.

  “It’s nothing. It’s just, I haven’t even told Adam. And it?
??s a bit much, all at once. Seeing you and . . . Look, are you okay? How’s your finger?”

  “Cast off. Fine. It was just a fracture, really.”

  “And . . . ?”

  “Bruised, that’s all.” She put her hand to her chest and pressed it softly. “They did a really good job. Put everything back where they found it. Alex,” she said, putting her hands behind her head and opening her eyes wide, “Kitty Alexander is sitting in your living room. In your living room.”

  “Yeah, I know.”

  “Well, is it a secret? Aren’t you going tell Adam? I mean—Jesus, man—what’s she doing here? In Mountjoy?”

  “Es, please, please,” he said, reaching out for her like a blind man, “let me just— Can we talk about all that later? I mean, can I get a kiss or something? I’ve missed you.”

  “Oh, come here,” she said at last. He walked forward and she enfolded him in her rangy arms. “I don’t understand—you should be over the moon. What’s wrong with you?”

  “Almost everything.”

  The smell was as ever: cocoa butter; a perfume she had used since college; and the aftershave she put on her head.

  “Al, I’ve been talking to her all afternoon. She’s just amazing. Did you know,” she said, between kisses, “that she went to bed with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard? At the same time?”

  “Hmm . . . That’s a lot of movie star in one bed. Kiss me over here.”

  “But—I don’t understand—I mean, how does it feel?” she said, her plum-lips buzzing each word on his earlobe. “She’s here, you met her. Ever since I’ve known you you’ve wanted—”

  “Come to bed with me,” he murmured, pushing one hand past her culotte and some aggressive knicker elastic. “It’s just me, but we could call some actors. . . .”

  “Alex, stop it. . . . She’s so much nicer than I imagined. She seems such a diva in the films, but she’s so normal. She’s just incredibly frank, and she’s a feminist—really, I’m telling you, man, she’s inspirational. The things she says—I could listen to her all— Alex!”

  His middle finger had been trying to get past cotton so it could touch her there. She drew back from him and straightened her clothes.

  “Look, I’m going to go back in there. It’s too rude to leave her there alone. And also—please tidy your room properly. You can’t put her in there like that. There’s rubbish everywhere. She’s a freaking movie star. Actually, I can’t believe it,” Esther said, losing her control, breaking into her awesome smile, the flashbulb eyes. “Kitty Alexander. Kitty Alexander! Kit-ty-Al-ex-and-er. In your living room. In your living room. It’s surreal.”

  “Yes,” said Alex, unable to feel it.

  She kissed him on the nose. Ten years is a long time to have the same person kissing you in the same places, but he still felt some portion of the thrill. And the gratitude.

  “Oi,” he said, as she turned to leave. “You’ve seen my news. I want to see yours. We had a deal, didn’t we?”

  She stopped, and he approached, taking the vest by its ragged edge and lifting it slowly over her head. As her arms lifted to help him, the box lurched forward, pushing at the skin. He could see stitches and the outline of a wire. He took one hand to her right breast, one to this new heart. The kettle knew how to whistle.

  FACT. WOMEN HAVE an endless capacity for anecdote. Men prefer jokes and stories. Alex didn’t mind any of the above, as long as he was doing the telling, but Kitty and Esther had set off, before he arrived, on their open-topped bus, on their nostalgia tour. They rolled round the deserted soundstages of old studio lots, the penthouses of closed hotels. They did not pause and there was no opportunity for Alex to get on board. His exit from the room, after a pronounced sulk, went unnoticed. Only when he returned five minutes later to requisition Grace did he get some attention.

  “Oh,” complained Kitty. “But she and Lucia, they are in love.”

  Alex grabbed a disinclined Grace, shoving her head through his armpit. “She likes it upstairs with me. She likes watching me work.”

  “Work?” asked Esther, laughing. He glowered, disliking her when she was like this, performing, he felt, for somebody else’s benefit.

  “Preparation” was his curt reply.

  “You will call?” suggested Kitty, hopefully, stretching her arms up in expectation of a hug like an aunt. “Maybe you will call Max for me. Just to say I am all right. I leave the number on the bulletin board in the kitchen. Call him, I think. Make sure he is not angry with me.”

  “Sure,” said Alex, stepping back and closing the door behind him.

  Upstairs, Alex picked up the case from his trip and emptied the contents onto the bed. The clothes he lifted in one stinking bundle and dropped into the bathroom’s washing basket. Books he put on the floor and then kicked into a reasonable pile in a corner. He filed through the paper by hand, throwing every other piece of it into the bin including all receipts, for he had long ago decided that he would rather pay the tax in full than allow himself to be the type of man who remembers a beautiful day by the expenses he ran up on it.

  A dealer’s card. A Playboy Bunny’s signature. A ticket to skate. A yellow envelope. Alex takes out the stalker’s letter and rereads it. Poor, crazy Max. But Alex is compelled by the tone; there is something in it that he recognizes. Great love, adoration, yes. But also cauterized resentment. It is a quality present in Alex’s own letters, too, although there it is better disguised. He didn’t realize it at first. And then an epiphany when he was still a teenager, one very rainy premiere, stuck against an iron barrier, soaking wet, watching the French actress he had come to see sweep down a red carpet under a giant umbrella, without giving him a second glance. He had written up the incident in his book under the subheading “Jewish Fame and Goyish Fanhood.”

  Groupies hate musicians. Moviegoers hate movie stars. Autograph Men hate celebrities. We love our gods. But we do not love our subjection.

  Alex sat down and switched on the box of tricks. He made a quick mental list, to be expanded later, of the various auctions in the ether he would put Kitty on. Back in New York, she had given him access to eight cardboard boxes of her private correspondence with the proviso that he could take anything he liked except letters to her family. As far as the other material was concerned, she was entirely unsentimental. On his desk now sat a selection of love letters. She’d had an affair with a famous actor; his widow had returned her letters when he died. And talk about content! In one she describes a Vegas hotel room, early in the morning, with yet another lover, a black actor. She remembers the color of the uniform the maid wore when she came in unannounced and spat on their duvet. Alex didn’t really dare to think how much such a thing would be worth, how much all of them were worth. From New York he had already sent a bundle of four to his London auction house. They would be sold tomorrow. He barely allowed himself the transcendent mental picture of sitting there in front of everyone with the Autograph Scoop of the century.

  It was not the money that excited him. Not entirely the money. He told himself it was the joy of giving a gift, a gift back to Kitty, for what she had given him. But this was not quite right. It was the perfection of vision. An Autograph Man’s life is spent in the pursuit of fame, of its aura, and all value comes from the degree of closeness to it one can achieve. But now he had the aura. He had it in a bottle. He possessed it. It was part of him, almost.

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  Both Bull and Self Transcended

  1.

  It had been a wonderful night, that was the tragedy of it. Nirvana should be judged not by the quality of vulgar passions but by the subsequent repose, and they had slept together beautifully, curled around each other on the sofa as if they were part of its design. He awoke with his face at home in the cleft of her shoulder blade, his hair stuck to her skin. He was happy! Daylight swelled behind a closed blind. He squeezed her waist, kissed the back of her neck. This was happiness! But then she stretched, and her hand found its way into a fault-line in the so
fa.

  “What’s this?”

  “Hmm? What’s what?”

  She drew it out with theatrical slowness. In the half-light it seemed to Alex that she was skinning a snake.

  “Alex, whose are these?”

  Alex opened his mouth.

  “Don’t say Kitty’s,” said Esther firmly, and with that, their closeness was over, she was ripped from him, suddenly sitting up. “They’re fishnets. Old women don’t wear fishnets.” And that was a fact.

  “Es, wait—”

  She swore quietly, expressively, and grabbed the remote control. The TV trembled into life, almost hesitating to intrude. She put on her underwear. A talking piece of furniture willingly filled the sound gap, one of its most useful functions. Alex opened his mouth.

  “And please,” said Esther, ramming her feet into her shoes, even before her trousers were on, “don’t use the phrase innocent explanation. Or, She’s just a friend. Don’t tell me you’d never do anything to hurt me. Please. Please try not to say anything you’ve heard on television.”

  In the middle of the East a man had boarded a bus with a bomb pressed to his navel. In Parliament a man accused another man of deceit. A child was missing. Her parents rocked and gulped and couldn’t finish their sentences.

  “Do you think you can play it out?” she asked. She had those tears, waiting. She stood in front of the screen. He didn’t know what she meant by these words. He knew, however, what her body meant, naked except for knickers and shoes. Those fierce bulges that were her thigh muscles: she could walk away. She would.

  “There will never be that moment, don’t you get it?” she asked, punching the arm of the sofa. “When you’ve had all the different people you want, when you’re done, when you settle for me. People don’t settle for people. They resolve to be with them. It takes faith. You draw a circle in the sand and you agree to stand in it and believe in it. It’s faith, you idiot.”

  A musical was closing. Various songs would never be sung again on this stage.

  “And so,” said the television, “after five thousand performances—”

 
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