The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith


  “It’s your money,” he said, “and it’s pointless giving it back. Even when they find out you’re not . . . then it’ll just be worth more because you’ll be the actress who everybody thought was dead and her autograph went for such and such on the day that everybody thought she was dead—and on and on. That’s the way it works. It’s all madness anyway. Take it, Kitty. Take it and bloody run.”

  “This is an interesting argument,” she replied, licking her finger and taking some sleep from Alex’s left eye. “I could be convinced therein. So . . . what to do? I keep the money, I see. Minus your ten percent, naturally.” Kitty was smiling. Alex was smiling back at her.

  “I already took that out. About fifteen grand. Thanks.”

  “You are a good boy,” said Kitty, patting his face. “I am very glad we meet. You are a realist, like me. This is good. You kill me, but then you resurrect me. And so you are forgiven.”

  Kitty made the sign of the cross, kissed her fingertips, and reached up to ruffle his hair.

  “Are you staying? Going?” asked Alex.

  “I stay,” said Kitty, seeming to make the decision as she spoke. “For a week or two, maybe. Don’t panic, don’t worry—now I have the means, I think I move out of your bedroom. The room service is not very impressive. And we must separate Lucia and Grace before they become completely obsessive about each other.”

  Alex kissed Kitty’s hand.

  “Well,” said Esther, chewing her lip as a tear journeyed down the bridge of her nose, hanging for a while on the tip, “someone’s got to call whoever needs to be called to retract this story, and I need the key for the car if I’m going to get to bloody college on—”

  “I leave you,” said Kitty, with an actress’s wink and sense of timing. At the doorway she said, “I know you have another big event this evening, yes?”

  Alex, who had locked eyes with Esther, nodded in silence.

  “I cannot come, sadly—I think the Pope would kill me. But maybe we have dinner afterwards, hmm? Yes, we do this.”

  They were left alone. Esther broke their eye contact and looked to the ceiling.

  “Yeah, so . . . I’ll need the keys for—”

  “You think I did it for me? Is that the problem?”

  “I don’t know,” she said, bringing both hands quickly to her face and putting a halt to crying, putting crying in its place. “It actually doesn’t really matter right now.”

  “You think I did it for some kind of glory, personal glory? Right?”

  Esther closed her mouth and spoke through her teeth, a trapped, staccato yell. “It’s not what I think you did. It’s like the girl on the sofa—it’s not what you did or didn’t do. It’s how I feel about it. It’s about how you make people feel. You know? I’m coming up for an operation and you’re with some girl. How do you expect me to feel?”

  He wanted, desperately, to touch her scalp, to draw her into him. To save them both from all this second-rate dialogue, the stuff that love engenders, the stuff of lovers. But he was in the middle of an argument and you’re not allowed to touch during a row, even though nine times out of ten, it’s the thing you want to do most.

  “Please,” he said, raising his game, gesticulating. “We’ve been together ten years. You know? And that’s what you think of me?”

  Here she swore at him and accused him of gross manipulation, but he persisted. And nothing about this argument was news. They had been performing variations on it for the last six years. It ran and ran. This is what relationships are: stage shows that run and run until all the life is drained from them and only the gestures remain.

  “You think,” snapped Alex, “it’s like you think I have, like, the morals of a sewer rat, or something.”

  “Let’s not talk about morals,” said Esther, solidly. “Let’s not do that.”

  She nodded to herself three times as if agreeing to somebody’s unspoken question. She left the room. Something gave way in Alex’s stomach, something like a trapdoor. Love, the withdrawal of love. Was this it? Now? The changeover? That day when the two-soldier fight, the war against plastic armrests and hypocrites and pseudos and television and food shaped in towers and triple-layered plastic packaging and consumer surveys and love songs and all organized religions—when this fight becomes singular? When you have to do it all solo? It had been threatening to come these last few years. Sometimes he wanted it to. The rest of the time, the thought scared him half to death. On this occasion, he made it to the stairs on adrenaline only and put himself between her and another step. He asked her. Loudly. Repeatedly. Is this it? Is this it? The End?

  “We’re both still alive, still here,” she said wearily, and hugged herself ever more tightly. “The end looks more . . . bloody. Dagger, vial of poison, all of that. You know the drill. We’re all right for today, okay? Beyond that—I just don’t know, Tandem. We’ll have to see, really.”

  She stepped round him and continued up the stairs.

  “Look,” she said, turning and seeing the appeal for clemency in his eyes, “have a shower, baby. You stink. Go and see Ads. I’m going to deal with the papers. I’ll be at the service. We’ll meet Kitty afterwards. Get out of the house for a while, out of my face.”

  No withdrawal, then. Suspension, only.

  2.

  Without taking Esther’s advice (he was interested to know how far he could go with this fug thing), Alex got on a bus to the Mulberry synagogue and sat on the front seats of the top deck enjoying that charming childhood illusion that he was flying down the street.

  “Not withdrawn!” he called down to a shopping family. “Just suspended!”

  “Good morrow, good wight!” he yelled at a vicar.

  “Get a job,” said an old man in the bus.

  “HELLO, BEAUTIFUL!” he shouted, sticking his arm out of the narrow window and waving at a schoolgirl.

  “Piss off, Humbert,” she called back, hitching her rucksack up her back, the better to give the two-fingered salute.

  At Mulberry Central he got off and asked two passing Hasidim for directions to the Progressive synagogue, which the men gave, along with looks of pity. Singing “Ol’ Man River,” a song he found useful for steeling oneself, Alex walked through the leafy avenues of Mulberry. At almost every corner there seemed to be a Hasid waiting to make him feel like a mold the planet had grown. Could they smell him? Or did they just know him? A sort of spiritual X-ray vision; sensing his paltry soul, his fermented faith. Alex decided to counterattack by waving at them. This was good. Waving felt good. To get absolutely no response to a friendly wave, waved with an open heart, is morally emboldening.

  At the synagogue, morning service had just ended. Alex could see a milling congregation and a plain concrete building in which a Star of David window sat flush with the wall, a shul without decoration but not without charm. A corridor of greenery led down to it, accompanied by a depressing and necessary security system complete with cameras up on their poles like berthed periscopes. Alex rang the bell and waved at the videophone. He was buzzed through.

  Rabbi Burston was outside in the sun, chatting with a gaggle of women, or at least that was Alex’s guess. There was definitely a gaggle of women and they were in a circle, talking and looking downwards. As Alex approached, the circle broke up and, although extremely small, it was the unmistakable figure of a pushy rabbi that came striding towards him. Alex felt any residual nerves evaporate; this was a reassuring comfort, this was the one thing you could count on: a rabbi is never shy. Alex had met those cringing vicars who seem mortified by their own existence—how can you get faith from a man ashamed of faith? In comparison, Alex had to admit to a grudging admiration for the rabbinical vocation. They always, always, gave as good as they got.

  “HI!” shouted Rabbi Burston. He was about forty and quixotically handsome for a man no bigger then a nine-year-old child. He was wearing jeans and a white shirt. Now he was up close, at Alex’s waist, and Alex began what he expected to be a long struggle to try not to stare
at Rabbi Burston any more than one would if he were normal height. He failed at once, full of wonder at the incredible barrel chest and curly black beard, the strong man physique, radically caricatured in this tiny man.

  “Hi.”

  “ALEX-LI, IS IT?” shouted the rabbi again. The circle of women were smiling at Alex indulgently, and a child was pointing.

  “Yes.”

  “YOU WANT TO TALK OUTSIDE OR INSIDE?”

  “Outside’s fine.”

  “GOOD. OUTSIDE DOES IT FOR ME. HOW ABOUT THAT BENCH?”

  “Okay. Is there a reason . . . I mean . . . why you’re shouting?”

  “I TRY AND DO THIS SOMETIMES, TO DISTRACT FROM”—he took himself in from head to toe with a flick of his wrist—“JUST FOR THE FIRST FEW MINUTES. I FIND IT HELPS SOMETIMES. IS IT HELPING?”

  “Not really.”

  “Oh,” said Rabbi Burston, scratching his beard and smiling. “Well, it’s not for everyone. Please, Alex, come into my office.”

  The rabbi skipped past a tree and hoisted himself up on the bench, his swinging feet far from the ground.

  “So. Alex. Let’s get right to it. Kaddish. Do you get it? I mean, do you really get it?”

  “Yes. I think so.”

  “Okay. Explain.”

  “Well, when I say . . . I mean, I believe I’ve got the basic—”

  “TO SANCTIFY GOD’S NAME PUBLICLY IS THE HISTORIC DUTY OF THE JEW!” screamed Rabbi Burston with both his little hands shaking in the air. He brought them down again and smiled placidly at Alex. “That’s what the books say, right? And it’s true. But I don’t want you to think of this as a duty. It’s a pleasure. It’s a gift you’re giving to your father. You’re walking into a shul and you’re giving a gift. And sometimes, when you were small and incapable, if you were giving a gift to someone, your mother would buy it for you, do you remember that? And just get you to sign the card—or just dip your hand in red paint and squish it on there. Did you ever do that?”

  To this Alex offered a noncommittal shrug.

  “Okay!” cried Rabbi Burston, and then fell silent. Still trying to avoid staring, Alex looked up to where the rabbi was looking, at the first cautious buds of a cherry tree, presently being fooled by the clement weather.

  “You know what?” said the rabbi, after a minute of nothing. “Let’s walk. Let’s walk around the shul and back, till we’re back at this tree. Deal?”

  The rabbi put his arms up, and Alex, nonplussed for a moment, realized with some horror that he was waiting to be lifted down.

  “What? Never picked up a rabbi before? Joke. It’s a joke,” said Rabbi Burston, and slipped nimbly from the bench to the ground. “Okay, let’s perambulate. Let’s get Socratic.”

  Alex had made an earlier pact with himself to walk very slowly if any simultaneous walking-with-midget-rabbi was called for, but in fact, the rabbi overtook him from the first and it was Alex who had to keep the pace.

  “The thing is,” said the rabbi, as a crowd of children scattered from his path, “Kaddish was never composed for shul. It’s a study hall prayer, it’s informal. It’s a prayer that came out of a need. Now, that’s very rare. This is not being forced from above, from the rabbis. This is being cried out for by the people as a need, as a human need. I take it you believe in human needs—we’re not that far gone with you?”

  “No, no—I’ll go with you as far as human needs. I have them. I see them around.”

  “Okay. Good, that’s good. Now. Notice, in the mourner’s prayer, there’s no Adoshem, there’s no Elohim, there’re no formal names for God. There’s only in Kaddish the informal, the intimate—kudsha Brich Hu, the Holy One, blessed be He, and then Avihun di bi’s;hmaya, their Father in heaven. You’ve even got HaShem, the Name, turned into Shemo, His Name. The Kaddish is a conversation between Jew and God, son and absent father, are you with me so far? It’s one-on-one, though the community is still essential—when I say Jew, I mean Jews—but it’s still quality time.”

  Rabbi Burston jumped up unexpectedly and gripped the edge of a low wall that went around the shul’s small backyard. He swung his body round, put his feet flat on the brick and stood up. Now he was about five seven to Alex’s six one.

  “What else do you want to know?”

  “Um . . . Okay . . . practical stuff. Like, I speak first—”

  “You speak first and then the minyan responds. By the way, I know you’ve only got eight so far, but I have two volunteers—they’ll be strangers to you and your father but not to Him, and that’s what matters. So: you speak, you speak, you speak, you speak, and then we respond. You recite again, we respond, one more time, and then everybody speaks together. Do you know your lines?”

  “Almost. Basically.”

  “Then we’re more than halfway there,” said the rabbi happily, and clapped his hands.

  “But how does that work? I don’t feel anything,” blurted Alex, and was glad that he had said it.

  “Lift, please. Seriously this time—to the next bit of wall.” Alex grabbed the rabbi in his armpits and hoisted him over the gap. Safely on the other side, the rabbi put both hands behind his back and continued his elevated stroll.

  “Good. So you don’t feel anything. That’s honest. So you want me to convince you, is that it? Do we have to go through the Akiva story? Really? The father and the wood-carrying and the fiery torment?”

  “No, no. I get the bit about I can bring my father eternal rest et cetera—but that’s not really relevant, because he wasn’t a Jew.”

  “Ah, but you are. But you’re not an idiot, you know that—that’s why you’re here.”

  Two children raced past them playing a noisy game of tag and then, seeing Rabbi Burston, felt silent and hit each other surreptitiously, passing the blame.

  “Alex, no need to look so miserable,” said Rabbi Burston, tutting. He reached the end of his wall, sat on it and then launched himself at the ground. He landed rather awkwardly this time, sliding a little in the gravel, but still there was nothing comic about him, nothing ignoble. This was irritating to Alex, who wanted and expected deflation in people above all things. Without it, as with Adam or Esther, your attachment grew too strong. The possibility of future pain only multiplied.

  “Rabbi, I still . . . I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t see the point of it. Not with regard to me.”

  Rabbi Burston kicked some pebbles across the yard.

  “Uh-huh,” he said, nodding keenly. “It’s depressing, not seeing the point of things, I know that. It’s like being fifteen all the time. That’s not a great age.”

  “I had better years.”

  They stepped together through a large indistinct Star of David, shadow of the window, moving slowly across the yard as the sun climbed.

  “Alex. Your friend Adam told me you collect autographs for a living. You see the point in that?”

  “No, not particularly. But—”

  “But it gives you pleasure.”

  “Some.”

  “So you collect, you get things. Famous things from big-shot people. Anything in that business have the status of a gift?”

  “How do you mean, gift?”

  “I mean, does anything in your daily life have the status of a gift?”

  “Well, I aim towards it,” said Alex, thinking, with defiance, of Kitty. “That’s the secular dream, isn’t it? Love, art, charity, maybe. All gifts.”

  “Yes,” said Rabbi Burston, smiling. “That’s the secular dream.”

  “I don’t see what that has to do with anything. I’m talking about ritual.”

  “Okay, then,” said Rabbi Burston, shadowboxing. “Give it to me. Talk about ritual.”

  “Well,” said Alex, sheepish, “well, okay, so I said it yesterday, the Kaddish, as a sort of practice. . . .” They stepped into a gloom cast by the roof of the shul, and without the superficial warmth of the light, the temperature plummeted. He shivered and drew his coat around him. “I said it and I didn’t feel a thing.
I mean, I was feeling something anyway, but the Kaddish didn’t help.”

  “You were by yourself?”

  Alex nodded.

  “Come on. Do you play football by yourself? Hockey? You watch a play by yourself? Do the tango by yourself? You make love by yourself? Actually, don’t answer that.”

  Alex laughed, glumly.

  “In the end,” said the rabbi, as they closed in on the confused cherry tree, “it’s a tzidduk hadin, an acceptance of divine judgment. Instead of cursing God for our loss, we rise and praise him. We accept the judgment. He gave, he took away. We accept.”

  “But I don’t. I don’t accept it,” mumbled Alex, feeling a familiar depression envelop him. “It doesn’t work for me. To me, it’s obscene. All the suffering. I can’t sign on that line, I can’t.”

  A woman, who had been lingering nearby this last minute shuffling some sheets of paper, now said Rabbi Burston’s name quietly.

  “Yes, Mrs. Bregman, I’m coming, one moment, please.”

  The rabbi turned back to Alex and angled his head all the way back, braving the bright sun to look Alex straight in the eye. “Alex. I’m pretty busy, you know? Do me a favor. Turn up here at six and say what you’ve been asked to say and give the gift. Your friends and I have written the card, bought the present, and painted your hand red. Just turn up with your red hand, okay?”

  3.

  On Adam’s outdoor walkway, in deference to the unlikely sun, brunch was being eaten. Chairs had been placed so plates could rest on the wall and the Brunchers were seated in a line with their beers like truck drivers in a diner. Joseph and Rubinfine had their napkins tucked facetiously into their collars, while Adam hovered over them with a griddle pan of scrambled eggs laced with pink flecks of smoked salmon. Without a word Alex hitched himself up onto the wall next to Rubinfine and sat, legs dangling.

  “And before you ask,” said Joseph, looking straight ahead over the rooftops, “this is the first sick day I’ve taken off work in six months.”

  “He’s thinking of quitting,” explained Adam, “but he’s still blowing his wages. He paid for the salmon. Want a plate, Al?” Without waiting for an answer, he went indoors to fetch one.

 
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