Herzog by Saul Bellow

  Moses pressed her body all night with fervor, exaltation. She was not so fervent, but then she was a recent convert. Besides, one lover is always more moved than the other. Sometimes she had tears of anger and misery in her eyes and complained of her sinfulness. Still, she wanted it, too.

  At seven in the morning, seeming to anticipate the alarm clock by a split second, she stiffened, and when it rang she was already exclaiming with suffocated anger, "Damn!" and striding to the bathroom.

  The fixtures were old-fashioned in this place. These had been luxury apartments in the 1890's. The broad-mouthed faucets ran a shattering stream of cold water. She dropped her pajama top so that she was bare to the waist, and washed herself with a cloth, purifying herself with angry vigor, her blue-eyed face growing red, her breasts pink. Silent, barefooted, wearing his trench coat as a robe, Herzog came in and sat on the edge of the tub, watching.

  The tiles were a faded cherry color, and the toothbrush rack, the fixtures, were ornate, old nickel. The water stormed from the faucet, and Herzog watched as Madeleine transformed herself into an older woman. She had a job at Fordham, and the first requirement, to her mind, was to look sober and mature, long in the Church. His open curiosity, the fact that he familiarly shared the bathroom with her, his nakedness under the trench coat, his pallid morning face in this setting of disgraced Victorian luxury- it all vexed her. She did not look at him while making her preparations.

  Over her brassiere and slip she put a high-necked sweater, and to protect the shoulders of the sweater she wore a plastic cape. It kept the makeup from crumbling on the wool. Now she began to apply her cosmetics-the bottles and powders filled the shelves above the toilet. Whatever she did, it was with unhesitating speed and efficiency, headlong, but with the confidence of an expert.

  Engraver, pastry cooks, acrobats on the trapeze worked in this manner. He thought she was too reckless at it going too fast, about to have a spill, but that never happened. First she spread a layer of cream on her cheeks, rubbing it into her straight nose, her childish chin and soft throat. It was gray, pearly bluish stuff. That was the base. She fanned it with a towel. Over this she laid the makeup. She worked with cotton swabs, under the hairline, about the eyes, up the cheeks and on the throat. Despite the soft rings of feminine flesh, there was already something discernibly dictatorial about that extended throat. She would not let Herzog caress her face downward-it was bad for the muscles. Seated, watching, on the edge of the luxurious tub, he put on his pants, tucked in his shirt. She took no notice of him; she was trying in some way to be rid of him as her daytime life began.

  She put on a pale powder with her puff, still at the same tilting speed, as if desperate. Then she turned swiftly to examine the work-right profile, left profile-bracing at the mirror, holding her hands as if to support her bust but not actually touching it. She was satisfied with the powder. She put touches of Vaseline on her lids. She dyed the lashes with a tiny coil. Moses participated in all this, intensely, silently. Still without pauses or hesitations, she put a touch of black in the outer corner of each eye, and redrew the line of her brows to make it level and earnest. Then she picked up a pair of large tailor's shears and put them to her bangs. She seemed to have no need to measure; her image was fixed in her will. She cut as if discharging a gun, and Herzog felt an impulse of alarm, short-circuited. Her decisiveness fascinated him, and in such fascination he discovered his own childishness. He, an able-bodied person seated on the edge of the pompous old tub, the enamel wreathed with hair-like twistings like cooked rhubarb, absorbed in this transformation of Madeleine's face. She primed her lips with waxy stuff, then painted them a drab red, adding more years to her age. This waxen mouth just about did it. She moistened a finger on her tongue, and brushed a few last touches on. That was it. She looked with level-browed gravity in the mirror and seemed satisfied. Yes, this was just right.

  She put on a long heavy tweed skirt, which hid her legs. High heels tilted her ankles slightly. And now the hat. It was gray, with a low crown, wide-brimmed. When she drew it over her sleek head she became a woman of forty-some white, hysterical, genuflecting hypochondriac of the church aisles. The wide brim over her anxious forehead, her childish intensity, her fear, her religious will-the pity of the whole thing! While he, the worn, unshaven, sinful Jew, endangering her redemption-his heart ached. But she barely gave him a glance. She had put on the jacket with the squirrel collar and was reaching under to adjust the shoulder pads. That hat! It was made like coil basketry of one long gray tape, about half an inch wide, like the hat worn by the Christian lady who had read the Bible with him in the hospital ward in Montreal. "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof...."

  There was even a hatpin. The job was finished. Her face was smooth and middle-aged. Only the eyeballs hadn't been touched, and the tears seemed about to spring from them. She looked angry-furious.

  She wanted him there at night. She would even, half with rancor, take his hand and put it on her breast as they were falling asleep. But in the morning she would have liked him to disappear. And he was not used to this; he was used to being a favorite. But he was dealing with a new female generation, that was what he told himself. To her he was a fatherly, graying, patient seducer (he could not believe it!). But the parts had been distributed. She had her white convert's face and Herzog couldn't refuse to play opposite.

  "You should have some breakfast," he said.

  "No. It'll make me late."

  The pastes had dried on her skin. She put on a big pectoral cross. She had been a Catholic for only three months, and already because of Herzog she couldn't be confessed, not by Monsignor, anyway.

  Conversion was a theatrical event for Madeleine.

  Theater - the art of upstarts, opportunists, would-be aristocrats.

  Monsignor himself was an actor. One role, but a fat one.

  Obviously she had religious feeling, but the glamour and the social climbing were more important.

  You are famous for converting celebrities, and she went to you.

  Nothing but the best for our Mady.

  The Jewish interpretation of the high-minded Christian lady or gentleman is a curious chapter in the history of social theater.

  The Dignities continually replenished from below. Where would any distinguished person come from, if not the masses? With the devotion and fire of transcendent resentment. I don't deny that it did much for me as well. It reflected very favorably on me to be involved in such an issue.

  "You'll get sick going to work on an empty stomach. Have breakfast with me beand I'll pay your cab fare out to Fordham."

  Decisively, but awkwardly, she left the bathroom, her stride hampered by the long ugly skirt. She wanted to fly, but with the cartwheel hat, the tweeds, the religious medals, her large pectoral cross, her heavy heart, getting off the ground was not easy.

  He trailed her through the mirror-paneled room, past framed prints of Flemish; altarpieces, gilt, green, and red. The doorknobs and locks were immobilized by many coats of paint. Madeleine tugged, impatiently. Herzog coming up behind her jerked open the white front door. They went down a corridor where bags of garbage were put out on the once luxurious carpet, and down in the decayed elevator, out of the trapped air of the black shaft into the porphyry facade of the moldy lobby, into the crowded street.

  "Aren't you coming? What are you doing?" said Madeleine.

  Perhaps he was not yet fully awake. Herzog was loitering for a moment near the fish store, arrested by the odor. A thin muscular Negro was pitching buckets of ground ice into the deep window. The fish were packed together, backs arched as if they were swimming in the crushed, smoking ice, bloody bronze, slimy black-green, gray-gold-the lobsters were crowded to the glass, feelers bent. The morning was warm, gray, damp, fresh, smelling of the river. Pausing on the metal doors of the sidewalk elevator, Moses received the raised pattern of the steel through his thin shoe soles; like Braille. But he did not interpret a message. The fish were arr
ested, lifelike, in the white, frothing, ground ice. The street was overcast, warm and gray, intimate, unclean, flavored by the polluted river, the sexually stirring brackish tidal odor.

  "I can't wait for you, Moses," said Madeleine, peremptory, over her shoulder.

  They went into the restaurant and sat at the yellow formica table.

  "What were you dawdling for?"

  "Well, my mother came from the Baltic provinces.

  She loved fish."

  But Madeleine was not to be interested in Mother Herzog, twenty years dead, however mother-bound this nostalgic gentleman's soul might be. Moses, thinking, ruled against himself. He was a fatherly person to Madeleine-he couldn't expect her to consider mother. She was one of the dead dead, without effect on the new generation.

  On the yellow-plated table was a red flower. The sharp dots of the blossom in a metal holder, or choker, sunk to the neck. Curious to know whether it was plastic too, Herzog touched it. Finding it real, he quickly drew back his fingers. Madeleine was watching.

  "You know I'm in a hurry," she said.

  She was fond of English muffins. He ordered them.

  She called after the waitress, "Tear mine.

  Please don't slice them." She tilted her chin to Moses, then, and said, "Moses, is my makeup on all right-on my neck?"

  "With your complexion, you don't need any of this."

  "But is it ragged?"

  "No. Am I going to see you later?"

  "I'm not sure. I've been invited for cocktails out at Fordham-for one of the missionaries."

  "But afterwards-I can catch a late train to Philly."

  "I promised Mother.. *. She's having trouble again with the old man."

  "I thought it was all settled-divorce."

  "She's such a slave!" said Madeleine. "She can't let go, and neither will he. It's to his advantage. She still goes to that rotten acting school after hours and keeps his books. He's the great thing in her life-another Stanislavsky. She sacrificed herself and if he's not a great genius what was it all for! Therefore he is a great genius...."

  "I've heard people say what a brilliant director he was."

  "He has something," said Madeleine. "Almost a female kind of insight. And he drugs people-it's evil the way he does it. Tennie says he spends about fifty thousand a year just on himself alone. He uses all his genius to burn that money."

  "It sounds to me as though she's keeping his books for your sake-trying to save what she can for you."

  "He'll leave nothing but lawsuits and debts...." She set her teeth in the toasted muffin-they were girlish, short. But then, she did not eat. She put the muffin down, and her eyes filled in their strange manner.

  "What's wrong? Eat."

  She pushed away the plate, however. "I've asked you not to phone me, up at Fordham. It upsets me. I have to keep the two things separate."

  "I'm sorry. I won't."

  "I've been beside myself. I'm ashamed to go to Monsignor for confession."

  "Won't another priest do?"

  She put down her cup with a sharp crack of clumsy restaurant china. A pale lipstick mark was on the rim. "The last priest bawled hell out of me about you. He asked how long had I been in the Church? Why was I baptized if I was going to act like this within a few months!" The great eyes of the middle-aged woman she had made herself up to be accused him. Across her white face were the straight brows she had given herself. He thought he could see the true outline beneath.

  "God! I'm sorry," said Moses. He looked contrite. "I don't want to make trouble." This was certainly untrue. On the contrary, he was bent on making trouble. He thought difficulty was the whole object. She wanted Moses and the Monsignor to struggle over her. It heightened the sexual excitement. He fought her apostasy in the sack. And certainly the Monsignor made female converts with his burning eyes.

  "I feel miserable-miserable," she said. It'll be Ash Wednesday soon, and I can't take Communion till I confess."

  "That's awkward...." Moses really did sympathize with her, but he wouldn't offer to bow out.

  "And what about marriage? How can we marry?"

  "Things can be worked out-the Church is a wise old institution."

  "At the office they talk about Joe Di Maggio, when he wanted to marry Marilyn Monroe. And the Tyrone Power case-one of his last marriages was performed by a prince of the Church. The other day there was another thing in Leonard Lyons about Catholic divorces." Madeleine read all the gossip columnists.

  Her bookmarks in St. Augustine and in her missal were clippings from the Post and Mirror.

  "Favorable?" asked Moses, doubling his muffin over and pressing it-it was buttered too thickly.

  Madeleine's large, violet eyes seemed swollen. Her thoughts were strained with these difficulties, many times analyzed. "I have an appointment with an Italian priest in the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. He's a canon-law expert I phoned him yesterday."

  In the Church twelve weeks, she already knew everything.

  "It would be easier if Daisy would divorce me," said Herzog.

  "She's got to give you a divorce." Madeleine's voice rose sharply. Herzog found himself looking at the face which had been prepared for the Jesuits, uptown.

  But something had happened-some string had tightened and twisted in her breast, and her figure grew rigid.

  Her fingertips whitened as she pressed the edge of the table and glared at him, her lips thinning and the color darkening under the tubercular pallor of her makeup.

  "What makes you think I intend to have a lifelong affair with you? I want some action."

  "But Mady-you know how I feel..."

  "Feel? Don't give me that line of platitudes about feelings. I don't believe in it. I believe in God-sin- death-so don't pull any sentimental crap on me."

  "No-now listen." He put on his fedora, as if he hoped to derive some authority from it.

  "I want to be married," she said. "This other stuff is just balls! My mother had to live a bohemian life. She worked, while Pontritter carried on.

  He bribed me with nickels when I saw him with one of his broads. You know how I learned my ABC'S? From Lenin's State and Revolution.

  These people are insane!"

  Probably so, Herzog mentally agreed. But now Madeleine wants white Christmases and Easter bunnies and to live perhaps in one of those streets of brick, semi-detached parochial houses in the dull wilderness of Queens borough, fussing over Communion dresses, with a steady Irish husband who sweeps up the crumbs at the biscuit factory.

  "Maybe I have become a fanatic about conventional things," said Madeleine. "But I won't have it any other way. You and I have got to marry in the Church, otherwise I quit. Our children will be baptized and brought up in the Church." Moses gave a dumb half-nod. Compared with her he felt static, without temperament. The powdered fragrance of her face stirred him (my gratitude for art, was his present reflection, any sort of art).

  "My childhood was a grotesque nightmare," she went on. "I was bullied, assaulted, ab-ab-ab..." she stammered.


  She nodded. She had told him this before. He could not bring this sexual secret of hers to light.

  "It was a grown man," she said. "He paid me to keep it quiet."

  "Who was he?"

  Her eyes were sullenly full and her pretty mouth desperately vengeful but silent.

  "It happens to many, many people," he said. "Can't base a whole life on that. It doesn't mean that much."

  "What-a whole year of amnesia not mean much? My fourteenth year is blacked out."

  She couldn't accept this broad-minded consolation from Herzog. Perhaps it seemed to her a kind of indifference. "My parents damn near destroyed me.

  All right-it doesn't matter now," she said. "I believe in my Savior, Jesus Christ. I'm not afraid of d-death now, Moses. Pon said we all died and rotted in the grave. Saying that to a girl of six or seven. He ought to be punished for it. But now I'm willing to go on living, and to bring children into the world, pro
vided that I have something to tell them when they ask me about death and the grave. But don't expect me to go along in the ordinary loose way-without rules. No! It'll be these rules or nothing."

  Moses watched her as though he were submerged, through the vitreous distortion of deep water.

  "Do you hear me?"

  "Oh, yes," he said. "Yes. I do."

  "I've got to go now. Father Francis is never a minute late." She picked up her handbag and hurried away, her cheeks shaken by the abruptness of her steps. She wore very high heels.

  Rushing into the subway on one of those mornings, she caught a heel in the hem of her skirt and fell, injuring her back. She limped up to the street and took a taxi to the office but Father Francis sent her to the doctor, who taped her heavily and told her to go home. There she found Moses, still half dressed, having a thoughtful cup of coffee (he was thinking continually, but nothing clear resulted).

  "Help me!" Madeleine said.

  "What happened?"

  "I fell in the subway. I'm hurt." Her voice was piercing.

  "You'd better lie down," he said. He unpinned her hat, and carefully unbuttoned her jacket and sweater, took off her skirt and slip. The clear, pink color of her body was disclosed below the makeup line at the base of her neck. He took off the pectoral cross.

  "Get me pajamas." She was shivering. The broad tapes had a strongly medicated smell. He led her to the bed and lay down with her to warm and comfort her, just as she wanted him to. There was a March snow, that grimy day. He did not go back to Philadelphia.

  "I punished myself for my sins," Madeleine repeated.

  I thought it might interest you to learn the true history of one of your converts, Monsignor.

  Ecclesiastical dolls-gold-threaded petticoats, whining organ pipes. The actual world, to say nothing of the infinite universe, demanded a sterner, a real masculine character.

  Like whose? thought Herzog. Mine, for instance? And, instead of concluding this letter to Monsignor, he wrote out, for his own use, one of June's favorite nursery rhymes.

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