The Book of Other People by Zadie Smith


  ‘The thing about a migraine-type experience is that it’s like being only half alive. You find yourself walking through this tomb-like world, everything gets far away and kind of dull and dead. Smoking pulls me back into the world, it restores my appetites for food and sex and conversation.’

  Well, I had evidence of food and conversation - Perkus Tooth’s appetites in sex were to remain mysterious to me for the time being. This was still the first of the innumerable afternoons and evenings I surrendered to Perkus’s kitchen table, to his smoldering ashtray and pot of scorched coffee, to his ancient CD boombox, which audibly whined as it spun in the silent gap between tracks, to our booth around the corner at Jackson Hole when a fierce craving for burgers and cola came over us, as it often did. Soon enough those days all blurred happily together, for in the disconsolate year of Janice’s broken orbit Perkus Tooth was probably my best friend. I suppose Perkus was the curiosity, I the curiosity-seeker, but he surely added me to his collection as much as the reverse.

  I did watch Echolalia. The way Brando tormented his would-be interviewer was funny, but the profundity of the whole thing was lost on me. I suppose I was unfamiliar with the required context. When I returned it I said so, and Perkus frowned.

  ‘Have you seen The Nascent?’

  ‘Nope.’

  ‘Have you seen Anything That Hides?’

  ‘Not that one either.’

  ‘Have you seen any of Morrison Roog’s films, Chase?’

  ‘Not knowingly.’

  ‘How do you survive?’ he said, not unkindly. ‘How do you even get along in the world, not understanding what goes on around you?’

  ‘That’s what I have you for. You’re my brain.’

  ‘Ah, with your looks and my brain, we could go far,’ he joked in a Bogart voice.

  ‘Exactly.’

  Something lit up inside him, then, and he climbed on his chair in his bare feet and performed a small monkey-like dance, singing impromptu, ‘If I’m your brain you’re in a whole lot of trouble . . . you picked the wrong brain!’ Perkus had a kind of beauty in his tiny, wiry body and his almost feral, ax-blade skull, with its gracefully tapered widow’s peak and delicate features. ‘Your brain’s on drugs, your brain’s on fire . . .’

  Despite this lunatic warning, Perkus took charge of what he considered my education, loading me up with tapes and DVDs, sitting me down for essential viewings. Perkus’s apartment was a place for consuming archival wonders, whether at his kitchen table or in the sagging chairs before his flatscreen television: bootlegged unreleased recordings by those in Tooth’s musical pantheon, like Chet Baker, Nina Simone or Neil Young, and grainy tapes of scarce film noir taped off late-night television broadcasts. Among these treasures was a videotape of a ninety-minute episode of the detective show Columbo, from 1981, directed by Paul Mazursky and starring John Cassavetes as a wife-murdering orchestra conductor, the foil to Peter Falk’s famously rumpled detective. It also featured, in roles as Cassavetes’s two spoiled children, Molly Ringwald and myself. The TV-movie was something Mazursky had tossed off around the time of the making of Tempest, a theatrical release featuring Cassavetes and Ringwald, though not, alas, me. That pretty well summed up my luck as an actor, the ceiling I’d always bumped against - television but never the big screen.

  Cassavetes was among Perkus’s holy heroes, so he’d captured this broadcast, recorded it off some twilight-hour rerun. The tape was complete with vintage commercials from the middle eighties, O. J. Simpson sprinting through airports and so forth, all intact. I hadn’t seen the Columbo episode since it was first aired, and it gave me a feeling of seasick familiarity. Not that Mazursky, Falk, Cassevetes and Ringwald had been family to me - I’d barely known them - yet still it felt like watching a home movie. And it led to the odd sense that in some fashion I’d already been here in Perkus’s apartment for twenty-odd years before I’d met him. His knowledge of culture, and the weirdly synesthetic connections he traced inside it, made it seem as though this moment of our viewing the tape together was fated. Indeed, as if at twelve years old I’d acted in this forgettable and forgotten television show alongside John Cassevetes as a form of private communion with my future friend Perkus Tooth.

  Of course Perkus paid scant attention to the sulky children tugging at Cassavetes’s sleeves - his interest was in the scenes between the great director and Peter Falk, as he scoured the TV-movie for any whiff of genius that recalled their great work together in Cassevetes’s own films, or in Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky. He intoned reverently at the sort of details I never bothered to observe, either then, as a child actor on the set, or as a viewer now. Of course he also catalogued speculative connections among the galaxy of cultural things that interested him.

  For instance: ‘This sorry little TV movie is one of Myrna Loy’s last-ever appearances. You know, Myrna Loy, The Thin Man? She was in dozens of silent movies in the twenties, too.’ My silence permitted him to assume I grasped these depth soundings. ‘Also in Lonelyhearts, in 1958, with Montgomery Clift and Robert Ryan.’

  ‘Ah.’

  ‘Based on the Nathanael West novel.’

  ‘Ah.’

  ‘Of course it isn’t really any good.’

  ‘Mmm.’ I gazed at the old lady in the scene with Falk, waiting to feel what Perkus felt.

  ‘Montgomery Clift is buried in the Quaker cemetery in Prospect Park, in Brooklyn. Very few people realize he’s there, or that there even is a cemetery in Prospect Park. When I was a teenager a girlfriend and I snuck in there at night, scaled the fence and looked around, but we couldn’t find his grave, just a whole bunch of voodoo chicken heads and other burnt offerings.’

  ‘Wow.’

  Only half listening to Perkus, I went on staring at my childhood self, a ghost disguised as a twelve-year-old, haunting the corridors of the mansion owned by Cassavetes’s character, the villainous conductor. It seemed Perkus’s collection was a place where one might turn a corner and unexpectedly find oneself, a conspiracy that was also a mirror.

  Perkus went on connecting dots: ‘Peter Falk was in The Gnuppet Movie, too, right around this time.’

  ‘Really.’

  ‘Yeah. So was Marlon Brando.’

  Marijuana might have been constant, but coffee was Perkus Tooth’s muse. With his discombobulated eye Perkus seemed to be watching his precious cup always while he watched you. It might not be a defect so much as a security system, an evolutionary defense against having his java stolen. Once, left alone briefly in his place, among his scattered papers I found a shred of lyric, the only writing I ever saw from Perkus that wasn’t some type of critical exegesis. An incomplete, second-guessed ode, it read: ‘Oh caffeine! / you contemporary fiend screen / / through my face - ’ And yes, the sheet of paper was multiply imprinted with rings by his coffee mug.

  It was impossible for me not to picture the fugue that eventually produced this writing being interrupted by a seizure of migraine, the pen dropping from Perkus’s hand as he succumbed to one of his cluster headaches. Impossible not to picture it this way because of the day I walked in on him in the grip of a fresh one. He’d e-mailed earlier to invite me to drop by, then fell victim. The door was unlocked and he called me inside from where he lay on his couch, in his suit-pants and a yellowed t-shirt, with a cool cloth draped over his eyes. He told me to sit down, and not to worry, but his voice was withered, drawn down inside his skinny chest. I was persuaded at once that he spoke to me from within that half-life, that land of the dead he’d so precisely evoked with his first descriptions of cluster headache.

  ‘It’s a bad one,’ he said. ‘The first day is always the worst. I can’t look at the light.’

  ‘You never know when it’s coming?’

  ‘There’s a kind of warning aura an hour or two before,’ he croaked out. ‘The world begins shrinking . . .’

  I moved for his bathroom, and he said: ‘Don’t go in there. I puked.’

  What I did I will admit is unlike me: I went in a
nd cleaned up Perkus’s vomit. Further, seeking out a sponge in his kitchen sink, I ran into a mess there, a cereal bowl half filled with floating Cheerios, cups with coffee evaporating to filmy stain-rings. While Perkus lay on the couch breathing heavily through a washcloth, I quietly tinkered at his kitchen, putting things in a decent order, not wanting him to slip into derangement and squalor on what it had suddenly occurred to me was my watch - he appeared so disabled I could imagine him not budging from that couch for days. And I’d still never seen another soul in Perkus’s apartment, though he claimed to have other visitors. The dinette table was scattered with marijuana, half of it pushed through a metal strainer, the rest still bunchy with seeds. I swept it all back into a plastic box labeled FUNKY MONKEY - another of his dealer’s brand names - and scooped the joints Perkus had completed into the Altoids tin he kept for that purpose. Then, growing compulsive (I do keep my own apartment neat, though I’d before never felt any anxiety at Perkus’s squalor), I started reorganizing his scattered CDs, matching the disks to their dislocated jewel cases. This kind of puttering may be how I set myself at ease, another type of self-medication. It was certainly the case that blundering in on Perkus’s headache had made me self-conscious and pensive, but I felt I couldn’t go. I made no attempt to conceal my actions, and Perkus offered no comment, apart from the slightest moan. But after I’d been clattering at his compact disks for a while he said: ‘Find Sandy Bull.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Sandy Bull . . . he’s a guitarist . . . the songs are very long . . . I can tolerate them in this state . . . it gives me something to listen to besides this throbbing . . .’

  I found the disk and put it in his player. The music seemed to me insufferably droning, psychedelic in a minor key, more suitable for a harem than a sickroom. But then I really know nothing about music or headaches.

  ‘You can go . . .’ said Perkus. ‘I’ll be fine . . .’

  ‘Do you need food?’

  ‘No . . . when it’s like this I can’t eat . . .’

  Well, Perkus couldn’t eat one of Jackson Hole’s fist-sized burgers, I’d grant that. I wondered if a plate of some vegetable or a bowl of soup might be called for, but I wasn’t going to mother him. So I did go, after lowering the lights but leaving the creepy music loud, as Perkus wished. I found myself strangely bereft, discharged into the vacant hours. I’d come to rely on my Perkus afternoons, and how they turned into evenings. The light outside was all wrong. I realized I couldn’t recall a time I’d not gone back through his lobby, brain pleasantly hazy, into a throng of Brandy’s Piano Bar patrons ignoring the sign and smoking and babbling outside on the pavement, while piano tinkling and erratic choruses of sing-along drifted from within the bar to the street. Now all was quiet, the stools upturned on the tables. And all I could think of was Perkus, stilled on the couch, his lids swollen beneath the washcloth.

  The next time I saw Perkus I made the mistake of asking if his tendency to veer into ellipsis was in any way connected to the cluster migraines. He’d been bragging the week before about his capacity for shifting into the satori-like state he called ‘ellipsistic’; how, when he ventured there, he glimpsed bonus dimensions, worlds inside the world. Most of his proudest writing, he’d explained, emanated from some glimpse of this variety of ellipsistic knowledge.

  ‘There’s no connection,’ he said now, where we sat in our Jackson Hole booth, his distaff eye bulging. ‘Cluster’s a death state, where all possibilities shut down . . . I’m not myself there . . . I’m not anyone. Ellipsis is mine, Chase.’

  ‘I only wondered if they might somehow be two sides of the same coin . . .’ Or two ways of peering out of the same skull, I thought but didn’t say.

  ‘I can’t even begin to explain. It’s totally different.’

  ‘I’m sorry,’ I said spontaneously, wanting to calm him.

  ‘Sorry for what?’ He’d spat out a gobbet of burger in his fury at refuting me.

  ‘I . . . didn’t mean . . . anything.’

  ‘Ellipsis is like a window opening, Chase. Or like - art. It stops time.’

  ‘Yes, you’ve said.’ The clot of chewed beef sat beside his napkin, unnoticed except by me.

  ‘Cluster, on the other hand - they’re enemies.’

  ‘Yes.’ He’d persuaded me. It hadn’t taken much. I wanted to persuade him, now, to see an Eastern healer I knew, a master of Chinese medicine who, operating out of offices in Chelsea, and with a waiting list of six months or more, ministered to Manhattan’s wealthy and famous, charming and acupuncturing away their ornate stresses and decadent ills. I promised myself I’d try, later, when Perkus’s anger cooled. I wanted so badly for him to have his ellipsis, have it wholly and unreservedly, wanted him to have it without cluster - however terribly much I suspected that one might be the price of the other. I wanted this selfishly, for, it dawned on me then, Perkus Tooth - his talk, his apartment, the space that had opened from the time I’d run into him at Criterion, then called him on the telephone - was my ellipsis. It might not be inborn in me, but I’d discovered it nonetheless in him. Where Perkus took me, in his ranting, in his enthusiasms, in his abrupt, improbable asides, was the world inside the world. And I didn’t want him smothered in the tomb-world of migraine.

  Donal Webster

  Colm Tóibín

  The moon hangs low over Texas. The moon is my mother. She is full tonight, and brighter than the brightest neon; there are folds of red in her vast amber. Maybe she is a harvest moon, a Comanche moon, I do not know. I have never seen a moon so low and so full of her own deep brightness. My mother is six years dead tonight, and Ireland is six hours away and you are asleep.

  I am walking. No one else is walking. It is hard to cross Guadalupe; the cars come fast. In the Community Whole Food Store, where all are welcome, the girl at the checkout asks me if I would like to join the store’s club. If I pay seventy dollars, my membership, she says, will never expire, and I will get a seven per-cent discount on all purchases.

  Six years. Six hours. Seventy dollars. Seven per cent. I tell her I am here for a few months only, and she smiles and says that I am welcome. I smile back. I can still smile. If I called you now, it would be half two in the morning; you could easily be awake.

  If I called, I could go over everything that happened six years ago. Because that is what is on my mind tonight, as though no time had elapsed, as though the strength of the moonlight had by some fierce magic chosen tonight to carry me back to the last real thing that happened to me. On the phone to you across the Atlantic, I could go over the days surrounding my mother’s funeral. I could go over all the details as though I were in danger of forgetting them. I could remind you, for example, that you wore a white shirt at the funeral. It must have been warm enough not to wear a jacket. I remember that I could see you when I spoke about her from the altar, that you were over in the side aisle, on the left. I remember that you, or someone, said that you had parked your car almost in front of the cathedral because you had come late from Dublin and could not find parking anywhere else. I know that you moved your car before the hearse came after Mass to take my mother’s coffin to the graveyard, with all of us walking behind. You came to the hotel once she was in the ground, and you stayed for a meal with me and Suzie, my sister. Jim, her husband, must have been near, and Cathal, my brother, but I don’t remember what they did when the meal was over and the crowd had dispersed. I know that as the meal came to an end a friend of my mother’s, who noticed everything, came over and looked at you and whispered to me that it was nice that my friend had come. She used the word ‘friend’ with a sweet, insinuating emphasis. I did not tell her that what she had noticed was no longer there, was part of the past. I simply said, yes, it was nice that you had come.

  You know that you are the only person who shakes his head in exasperation when I insist on making jokes and small talk, when I refuse to be direct. No one else has ever minded this as you do. You are alone in wanting me always to say something that is true.
I know now, as I walk towards the house I have rented here, that if I called and told you that the bitter past has come back to me tonight in these alien streets with a force that feels like violence, you would say that you are not surprised. You would wonder only why it has taken six years.

  I was living in New York then, the city about to enter its last year of innocence. I had a new apartment there, just as I had a new apartment everywhere I went. It was on 90th and Columbus. You never saw it. It was a mistake. I think it was a mistake. I didn’t stay there long - six or seven months - but it was the longest I stayed anywhere in those years or the years that followed. The apartment needed to be furnished, and I spent two or three days taking pleasure in the sharp bite of buying things: two easy chairs that I later sent back to Ireland; a leather sofa from Bloomingdale’s, which I eventually gave to one of my students; a big bed from 1- 800-Mattress; a table and some chairs from a place downtown; a cheap desk from the thrift shop.

  And all those days - a Friday, a Saturday, and a Sunday, at the beginning of September - as I was busy with delivery times, credit cards, and the whiz of taxis from store to store, my mother was dying and no one could find me. I had no cell phone, and the phone line in the apartment had not been connected. I used the pay phone on the corner if I needed to make calls. I gave the delivery companies a friend’s phone number, in case they had to let me know when they would come with my furniture. I phoned my friend a few times a day, and she came shopping with me sometimes and she was fun and I enjoyed those days. The days when no one in Ireland could find me to tell me that my mother was dying.

  Eventually, late on the Sunday night, I slipped into a Kinko’s and went online and found that Suzie had left me message after message, starting three days before, marked ‘Urgent’ or ‘Are you there’ or ‘Please reply’ or ‘Please acknowledge receipt’ and then just

  ‘Please!!!’ I read one of them, and I replied to say that I would call as soon as I could find a phone, and then I read the rest of them one by one. My mother was in the hospital. She might have to have an operation. Suzie wanted to talk to me. She was staying at my mother’s house. There was nothing more in any of them, the urgency being not so much in their tone as in their frequency and the different titles she gave to each e-mail that she sent.

 
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