Thursday, December 24, 2015

Paul Auster. Transcript, Excerpt. Chapter 5, Augie. Smoke 1995.

TOMMY Look, I’m telling you, there’s gonna be a war. I mean, those slops at Pentagon would be out of the job unless they found a way. And they got this Saddam character now. They’re going to hit them with all they’ve got.
AUGGIE (To PAUL) Hey, man, how’s it going?
PAUL Hi, Auggie. Two, right?
PAUL Uh, better make it one.
AUGGIE You usually get two.
PAUL Yeah, I know, but I’m trying to cut down. Somebody’s worried about my health.
AUGGIE Ah-hah. And how’s the work going these days, maestro?
PAUL Fine. Or it was until a couple of days ago. A guy from The New York Times called and asked me to write a Christmas story. They want to publish it on Christmas Day.
AUGGIE That’s a feather in your cap, man. The paper of record.
PAUL Yeah, great. The problem is, I have four days to come up with something, and I don’t have a single idea. You know anything about Christmas stories?
AUGGIE Christmas stories? Sure, I know a ton of ‘em.
PAUL You know any good ones?
AUGGIE Good ones? Of course. Are you kidding? I’ll tell you what. Buy me lunch, my friend, and I’ll tell you the best Christmas story you ever heard. How’s that? And I guarantee every word of it is true.

PAUL So. Are we ready?
AUGGIE Ready. Whenever you are.
PAUL I’m all ears.
AUGGIE Okay. You remember how you once asked me how I started taking pictures? Well, this is the story of how I got my first camera. As a matter of fact, it’s the only camera I’ve ever had. Are you following me so far?
PAUL Every word.
AUGGIE Okay. So this is the story of how it happened. Okay.
It was the summer of ‘seventy-six, back when I first started working for Vinnie. The summer of the bicentennial. A kid came in one morning and started stealing things from the store. He’s standing by the rack of paperbacks near the front window stuffing skin magazines under his shirt. I didn’t see him at first, because it was crowded around the counter. But once I noticed what he was up to, I started to shout. He took off like a jackrabbit, and by the time I managed to get out from behind the counter, he was already tearing down Seventh Avenue. I chased after him for about half a block, and then I gave up. He’d dropped something along the way, and since I didn’t feel like running anymore, I bent down to see what it was. It turned out to be his wallet. There wasn’t any money inside, but his driver’s license was there, along with three or four snapshots. I suppose I could have called the cops and had him arrested. I had his name and address from the license, but I felt kind of sorry for him. He was just a measly little punk, and once I looked at those pictures in his wallet, I couldn’t bring myself to feel very angry at him.
Roger Goodwin. That was his name. In one of the pictures, I remember, he was standing next to his mother. In another one, he was holding some trophy he got from school and smiling like he just won the Irish Sweepstakes. I just didn’t have the heart. A poor kid from Brooklyn without much going for him. Who cared about a couple of dirty magazines, anyway? So I held onto the wallet. Every once in a while I’d get a little urge to send it back to him, but I kept delaying and never did anything about it. Then Christmas rolls around, and I’m stuck with nothing to do. Vinnie was going to invite me over, but his mother got sick, and he and his wife had to go down to Florida at the last minute. So I’m sitting in my apartment that morning, feeling a little sorry for myself, and then I see Roger Goodwin’s wallet lying on a shelf in the kitchen. I figure what the hell, why not do something nice for once, and I put on my coat and go out to return the wallet.
The address was over in Boerum Hill, somewhere in the projects. It was freezing out that day, and I remember I kept getting lost a few times trying to find the right building. Everything looks the same in that place, and you keep going over the same ground thinking you’re somewhere else. Anyway, I finally get to the apartment I’m looking for and ring the bell. Nothing happens. I assume no one’s there, but I try again just to make sure. I wait a little longer, and just when I’m about to give up, I hear someone shuffling to the door. An old woman’s voice asks, “Who’s there?” and I say I’m looking for Roger Goodwin. “Is that you, Roger?” she says, and then she undoes about fifteen locks and opens the door. She has got to be at least eighty, maybe ninety years old, and the first thing I notice about her is she’s blind. “I knew you’d come, Roger,” she says. “I knew you wouldn’t forget your Granny Ethel on Christmas.” And then she opens her arms as if she’s about to hug me. I don’t have much time to think, you understand. I had to say something real fast, and before I knew what was happening, I could hear the words coming out of my mouth. “That’s right, Granny Ethel,” I said. “I came back to see you on Christmas.” Don’t ask me why I did it. I don’t have any idea. It just came out that way, and suddenly this old woman’s hugging me there in front of the door, and I’m hugging her back. It was like a game we both decided to play -- without having to discuss the rules. I mean, that woman knew I wasn’t her grandson. She was old and dotty, but she wasn’t so far gone that she couldn’t tell the difference between a stranger and her own flesh and blood. But it made her happy to pretend, and since I had nothing better to do anyway, I was happy to go along with her.
So we went into the apartment and spent the day together. Every time she asked me a question about how I was, I would lie to her. I told her I’d found a good job in a cigar store. I told her I was about to get married. I told her a hundred pretty stories, and she made like she believed every one of them. “That’s fine, Roger,” she would say, nodding her head and smiling. “I always knew things would turn out for you.” After a while, I started getting hungry. Since there was no food in the house, so I went out to a store in the neighborhood and brought back a mess of stuff. A precooked chicken, vegetable soup, a bucket of potato salad, all kinds of things. Granny Ethel had a couple of bottles of wine stashed in her bedroom, and so between us we managed to put together a fairly decent Christmas dinner. We both got a little tipsy from the wine, I remember, and after the meal was over we went out to sit in the living room where the chairs were more comfortable. I had to take a pee, so I excused myself and went to the bathroom down the hall. That’s where things took another turn.
It was ditsy enough doing my little jig as Ethel’s grandson, but what I did next was particularly crazy, and I’ve never forgiven myself since. I go into the bathroom, and stacked up against the wall next to the shower, I see a pile of six or seven cameras. Brand-new, thirty-five millimeter cameras, still in their boxes. I figure this is the work of the real Roger, a storage place for one of his recent hauls. I’ve never taken a picture in my life, much less never stolen anything, but the moment I see those cameras sitting in the bathroom, I decide I want one of them for myself. Just like that. And without even thinking about it, I tuck one of the boxes under my arm and go back to the living room. I wasn’t gone for more than three minutes, but in that time Granny Ethel had fallen asleep. Too much Chianti, I suppose. I went out the kitchen to wash the dishes, and she slept through the whole racket, snoring like a baby. There didn’t seem to be any point in disturbing her, so I decided to leave. I couldn’t even write a note to say good-bye, seeing that she was blind and all, so I just left. I put her grandson’s wallet on the table, picked up the camera again, and I walked out of the apartment. And that’s the end of the story.
PAUL Did you ever go back to see her?
AUGGIE Once, about three or four months later. I felt so bad about stealing the camera, I hadn’t even used it yet. I finally made up my mind to return it, but Granny Ethel wasn’t there anymore. Someone else had moved into the apartment, and he couldn’t tell me where she was.
PAUL She probably died.
AUGGIE Yeah, probably.
PAUL Which means that she spent her last Christmas with you.
AUGGIE I guess so. I never thought about it that way.
PAUL It was a good deed, Auggie. It was a nice thing you did for her.
AUGGIE I lied to her, and then I stole from her. I don’t see how you can call that a good deed.
PAUL You made her happy. And the camera was stolen anyway. It’s not as if the person you took it from really owned it.
AUGGIE Anything for art, eh, Paul?
PAUL I wouldn’t say that. But at least you’ve put the camera to good use.
AUGGIE And now you’ve got your Christmas story, don’t you?
PAUL Yes, I suppose I do.
Bullshit is a real talent, Auggie. To make up a good story, you have to know how to push all the right buttons. I’d say you’re up there among the masters.
AUGGIE What do you mean?
PAUL I mean, it’s a good story.
AUGGIE Shit. If you can’t share your secrets with your friends, what kind of friend are you?
PAUL Exactly. Life just wouldn’t be worth living, would it?

AUGGIE is still smiling. PAUL smiles back at him. AUGGIE lights a cigarette; PAUL lights a little cigar. They blow smoke into the air, still smiling at each other. The camera follows the smoke as it rises toward the ceiling. Close-up of the smoke. Hold for three, four beats. The screen goes black. Music begins to play. Final credits.

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