Herzog by Saul Bellow


  But Sono had never really learned to speak English.

  For two years, she and Moses had conversed in French- petit negre.

  He wrote,

  Ma chere,

  Ma vie est devenue un cauchemar affreux. Si tu savais!

  At McKinley High School, from a forbidding spinster, Miss Miloradovitch, he had learned his French. The most useful course I took.

  Sono had seen Madeleine only once, but once was enough. She warned me as I sat in her broken Morris chair. "Moso, mefie toi. Prend garde, Moso."

  She had a tender heart, and Herzog knew that if he wrote her of the sadness of his life, she would certainly cry. Instantaneous tears. They had a way of appearing without the usual Western preliminaries. Her black eyes rose from the surface of her cheeks in the same way that her breasts rose from the surface of her body. No, he would not write her sad news of any sort, he decided. Instead, he allowed himself to picture her as she might be now (it was morning in Japan), bathing in her steaming spring, her small mouth open, singing. She bathed often, and sang as she washed, her eyes upcast and her lips dainty and tremulous.

  The songs were sweet and odd, narrow, steep, at times with catlike sounds.

  During the troubled time when he was being divorced from Daisy and he came to visit Sono in her West Side apartment, she would immediately run the little tub and fill it with Macy's bath salts. She unbuttoned Moses' shirt, took off his clothes, and when she had him settled ("Easy now, it's hot") in the swirling, foaming, perfumed water she let drop her petticoat and got in behind him, singing that vertical music of hers.

  "Chin-chin Je te lave le dos Mon Mo-so."

  As a young girl she had gone to live in Paris, and she was caught there by the War. She was down with pneumonia when the American troops entered and was still sick when she was repatriated via the Trans-Siberian Railroad. She no longer cared for Japan, she said; the West had spoiled her for life in Tokyo, and her rich father allowed her to study design in New York.

  She told Herzog that she was not sure she believed in God, but that if he did she would also try to have faith. If on the other hand he was a Communist she was prepared to become one, too. Because "Les Japonaises sont tres fideles. Elles ne sont pas comme les Americaines. Bah!" Still, American women also amused her. She often entertained the Baptist ladies who were her sponsors with the Immigration Department. She prepared shrimp or raw fish for them or treated them to the tea ceremony. Moses sometimes sat waiting on the stoop of the brownstone opposite when the ladies were slow to leave. Sono with great enjoyment-she was greedy for intrigue (the abysses of female secrecy!)-would come to the window and give him the high sign, pretending to water her plants. She grew little ginkgo trees and cactuses in yoghurt containers.

  On the West Side, she occupied three rooms with high ceilings; at the back there grew an ailanthus tree, and one of the front windows contained a giant air-conditioner; it must have weighed a ton.

  Fourteenth Street bargains filled the apartment-an overstuffed chesterfield, bronze screens, lamps, nylon drapes, masses of wax flowers, articles of wrought iron and twisted wire and glass. Here Sono went back and forth busily on bare feet, coming down on her heels sturdily. Her lovely body was covered unbecomingly in knee-length bargain negligees bought on the stands near Seventh Avenue. Every purchase involved her in a battle with the other bargain hunters. Excitedly holding her soft throat she would tell Herzog with sharp cries what had happened. "Cheri! J'avais deja choisi mon tablier. Cette femme s'est foncee sur moi. Woo! Elle etait noire!

  Moooan dieu! Et grande! Derriere immense.

  Immense poi-trine. Et sans soutien-gorge.

  Tout a fait comme Niagara Fall. En chair noire." Sono puffed out her cheeks and crooked her arms as though suffocating with fat, thrusting out her belly, then displaying her rump. "Je disais, "No, no, leddy. I here first." Elle avait les bras comme ca-enfles. Et quelle gorge!

  Il y avait du monde au balcon.

  "No!" je disais. "No, no, leddy." was Proudly Sono showed her nostrils, made her eyes heavy and dangerous. She set a hand on her hip. Herzog in the broken Morris chair from the Catholic Salvage said, "That's the stuff, Sono. They can't push the Samurai around on Fourteenth Street." Abed, he had touched Sono's eyelids experimentally, as she lay smiling. Those strange, complex, soft, pale lids would keep the imprint of a touch for quite a while.

  To tell the truth, I never had it so good, he wrote.

  But I lacked the strength of character to bear such joy.

  That was hardly a joke. When a man's breast feels like a cage from which all the dark birds have flown-he is free, he is light. And he longs to have his vultures back again. He wants his customary struggles, his nameless, empty works, his anger, his afflictions and his sins. In this parlor of Oriental luxury, making a principled quest- principled, mind you-for life-giving pleasure, solving for Moses E. Herzog the puzzle of the body (curing himself of the fatal disorder of worldliness which rejects worldly happiness, this Western plague, this mental leprosy), he seemed to have found his object. But often he sat morose, depressed, in the Morris chair. Well, curse such sadness! But she liked even that. She saw me with the eyes of love, and she said, "Ah! T'es melancolique-c'est tres beau!" It may be that guilt and sadness made me look Oriental. A morose, angry eye, a long upper lip-what people used to call the Chinese Gleep. It was beau to her. And no wonder she thought I might be a Communist. The world should love lovers; but not theoreticians. Never theoreticians! Show them the door. Ladies, throw ou* these gloomy bastards!

  Hence, loathed melancholy! In dark Cimmerian desart ever dwell.

  Sono's three tall rooms in the brownstone apartment were hung with transparent bargain curtains, like the Far East in the movies. There were many interiors. The inmost was the bed, with sheets of spearmint green, or washed-out chlorophyll, unmade, everything in disorder. After the bath, Herzog's body was red. When she had dried and powdered him, she dressed him in a kimono, her pleased but still slightly unwilling Caucasian doll. The stiff cloth cramped him under the arms as he sat on the pillows. She brought him tea in her best cups. He listened to her talk. She would tell him the latest scandals of the Tokyo press.

  A woman had mutilated her unfaithful lover and was found with the missing parts in her obi. A locomotive engineer slept through a signal and killed a hundred and fifty-four people. Her father's concubine was now driving a Volkswagen. She parked at the gate of the house, for she was not allowed into the yard. And Herzog thought... is this really possible?

  Have all the traditions, passions, renunciations, virtues, gems, and masterpieces of Hebrew discipline and all the rest of it-rhetoric, a lot of it, but containing true facts-brought me to these untidy green sheets, and this rippled mattress? As if anyone cared what he was doing here. As if it affected the fate of the world in any way. It was his own business. "I got a right," Herzog whispered, though his face neither changed nor moved. Very good. The Jews were strange to the world for a great length of time, and now the world is being strange to them in return. Sono brought out a bottle and spiked his tea with cognac or Chivas Regal. When she had taken a few nips herself she gave a playful growl. Herzog could not help laughing. Sono then brought out her scrolls. Fat merchants made love to slender girls who looked away comically as they submitted.

  Moses and Sono sat cross-legged on the bed.

  She pointed to things, winking and exclaiming and pressing her round face to his.

  Something was always frying or brewing in her kitchen, a dark closet rank with fish and soy sauce, seaweed vermicelli, old tea leaves. The plumbing was often out of order. She wanted Herzog to have a talk with the Negro janitor, who would only laugh at her when she demanded service. Sono kept two cats; their pan was never clean. When Herzog was in the subway, coming to see her, he already began to smell those odors of her apartment. Their darkness passed through his heart. He violently desired Sono, and just as violently did not want to go. Even now he felt the fever, remembered the smells, experienced the
difficulty. He shivered when he rang her bell. The chain rattled, she pulled open the large door and threw her arms about his neck. Her face was elaborately made up, and she smelled of musk. The cats tried to make an escape. She captured them, and then she cried out-alw the same cry- "Moso! Je viens de rentrer!"

  She was breathless. She had run to meet him and beat him home by seconds. Why? Why did she always have to be just under the wire? Perhaps to show that she had an independent and active life; she did not sit waiting. The tall door with the curved top admitted him. Sono secured it again with bolt and chain (precautions of a woman living alone; but she said the super tried to let himself in without knocking). Herzog with a beating heart but composed face entered, looked around with pale-faced dignity at the hangings (sienna, crimson, green) and the fireplace stuffed with the wrappings of her latest purchases, the draftsman's table where she did her homework and where the cats perched. He smiled at eager Sono, and sat down in the Morris chair. "Mauvais temps, eh cheri?" she said, and she began at once to cheer him. She took off his miserable shoes, telling him where she had been. Some lovely Christian Science ladies had invited her to a concert at the Cloisters. She had seen a double feature at the Thalia-Danielle Darrieux, Simone Signoret, Jean Gabin, et Harry Bowwow. The Nippon-America Society invited her to the United Nations building, where she presented flowers to the Nizam of Hyderabad. Through a Japanese trade mission she also met Mr.

  Nasser and Mr. Sukarno and the Secretary of State and the President. Tonight she had to go to a night club with the foreign minister of Venezuela. Moses had learned not to doubt her. She always produced a night-club photograph in which she sat beautiful and laughing in a low-cut gown. She had Mendes-France's autograph on a menu. She would never ask Herzog to take her to the Copacabana. This was a mark of her respect for his deep gravity. "T'es philosophe. O mon philosophe, mon professeur d'amour. T'es tres important. Je le sais." She rated him higher than kings and presidents.

  As she put the kettle on for Herzog's tea, she never failed to describe the events of her day from the kitchen at the top of her voice. She saw a three-legged dog which made a truck swerve into a pushcart. A cabdriver wanted to give her his parrot, but the cats would kill it. She could not accept such a responsibility. A pan-handling old woman-vieille mendiante-got her to buy a copy of the Times for her. That was all the old creature wanted, this morning's Times.

  A policeman said he would give Sono a ticket for jay-walking. A man had exposed himself behind a subway pillar. "Ooooh, c'etait honteux-quelle chose!" She measured with her hands from her own body. "One foots, Moso.

  Tres laide."

  "Ca t'a phi," Moses said smiling.

  "Oh no! Moso, no! Elle etait vilain."

  She was, however, delightfully excited. Moses looked at her gently, suspiciously as well, perhaps, lying back elegantly in the broken reclining chair. The fever he had felt as he was coming had now begun to subside. Even the smells were never quite so bad as he had anticipated. The cats were less jealous of him. They came to be petted. He grew used to their Siamese mewing, more passionate and hungry than that of American cats.

  Then she said, "Et cette blouse-combien j'ai paye? Dis-moi."

  "You paid-let me see-you paid three bucks for it."

  "No, no," she cried, "sixty sen'. Solde!"

  "Impossible. Why, that thing is worth five bucks. You must be the greatest shopper in New York."

  Gratified, she gave him a brilliant wink and took off his socks, chafing his feet. She brought him tea and poured a double shot of Chivas Regal into it. For him she kept the best of everything.

  "Veux-tu scrambled eggs, cheri-koko. As-tu faim?" A cold rain was killing desolate New York with its green icy spikes.

  When I pass Northwest Orient Airlines, I always mean to price a ticket to Tokyo.

  She put soy sauce on the eggs. Herzog ate and drank. All the food was salty. He swallowed a great deal of tea. "We take bath," said Sono, and began to unbutton his shirt. "Tu veux?"

  Teas and baths-the steam of boiling water loosened the wallpaper from the green plaster behind it. The great console radio through a cloth-of-gold speaker played the music of Brahms. The cats were cuffing shrimp shells under the chairs.

  "Oui-je veux bien," he said.

  She went to run the water. He heard her singing as she sprinkled the lilac salts and bubble-bath powder.

  I wonder who's scrubbing her now.

  Sono asked for no great sacrifices. She did not want me to work for her, to furnish her house, support her children, to be regular at meals or to open charge accounts in luxury shops; she asked only that I should be with her from time to time. But some people are at war with the best things of life and pervert them into fantasies and dreams. The Yiddish French we spoke was funny but innocent. She told me no such broken truths and dirty lies as I heard in my own language, and my simple declarative sentences couldn't do her much harm.

  Other men have forsaken the West, looking for just this. It was delivered to me in New York City.

  The bath was not without its occasional trials. At times, Sono examined Herzog's body for signs that he was unfaithful. Lovemaking, she was strongly convinced, turned men lean. "Ah!" she would say.

  "Tu as maigri. Tu fais amour?" He denied it but she shook her head, continuing to smile, though her face became puffy and bitter. She refused to believe him. But she would forgive him, at last.

  Her good humor returning, she put him in the tub, climbing in behind him. Singing, or growling mock orders at him in military Japanese. But peace had come. They bathed. She put her feet forward for him to soap. She dipped water in a plastic dish and poured it over his head. Draining the tub at last, she turned on the shower to rinse away the suds, and they stood together smiling under the spray. "Tu seras bien propre, cheri-koko."

  Yes, she kept me very clean. With amusement and with sorrow, Herzog recalled it all.

  They dried themselves with Turkish towels from 14th Street. She dressed him in the kimono, kissing his chest. He kissed the palms of her hands. Her eyes were tender, shrewd, they showed a thrifty light at times; she knew where to invest her sensuality and how to increase it. She sat him on the bed, and there she served him tea. Her concubine. They sat cross-legged, sipping from the small cups, looking at the scrolls. The door was bolted, the telephone off the hook. Tremulous, Sono's face came near, and she touched his cheek with her chub lips. They helped each other out of the Oriental garments. "Doucement, cheri.

  Oh, lentement. Oh!" Turning up her eyes so that he saw only the whites.

  She tried to explain to me once that earth and the planets were sucked from the sun by a passing star. As if a dog should trot by a bush and set free worlds.

  And in those worlds life appeared, and within that life such as we-souls. And even stranger creatures than we she said I liked to hear this, but I didn't understand her well. I know I kept her from returning to Japan. For my sake, she disobeyed her father.

  Her mother died, and Sono did not mention it for weeks. And once she said, "Je ne crains pas la mort. Mais tu me fais souffrir, Moso." I hadn't called her in a month. She had had pneumonia again. No one had come to see her. She was weak and pale, and she cried and said, "Je souffre trop." But she did not let him comfort her; she had heard that he was seeing Madeleine Pontritter.

  She did, however, say, "Elle est mechante, Moso. Je suis pas jalouse. Je ferai amour avec un autre. Tu m'as laissee.

  Mais elle a les yeux tres, tres froids."

  He wrote,

  Sono, you were right. I thought you might like to know. Her eyes are very cold.

  Still, they are her eyes, and what is she to do about them?

  It would not be practical for her to hate herself.

  Luckily, God sends a substitute, a husband.

  Ah, in the midst of such realizations, a man needs some comfort. Herzog once more set off on his visit to Ramona. As he stood at the door with the long metal shank of the police lock in his hand, his memory sought a certain son
g title. Was it "Just One More Kiss"? Not that. Nor "The Curse of an Aching Heart."

  "Kiss Me Again." That was it. It struck him very funny, and laughter made him clumsy as he set up the complicated lock to protect his worldly goods. Three thousand million human beings exist, each with some possessions, each a microcosmos, each infinitely precious, each with a peculiar treasure. There is a distant garden where curious objects grow, and there, in a lovely dusk of green, the heart of Moses E. Herzog hangs like a peach.

  I need this outing like a hole in the head, he thought as he turned the key. Still, he was going, wasn't he.

  He was pocketing the key. And now ringing for the elevator. He listened to the sound of the power, the cables threshing. He went down alone, humming "Kiss Me," and trying to capture, as if it were an elusive fragile thread, the reason why these old songs were running through his head. Not the obvious reason. (he had an aching heart, was going forth to be kissed.) The recondite reason (if that was worth finding). He was glad to reach the open air, to breathe.

  He dried the sweatband of the straw hat with his handkerchief-it was hot in the shaft. And who wore such a hat, such a blazer? Why, Lou Holtz, of course, the old vaudeville comic.

  He sang, "I picked a lemon in the garden of love, where they say only peaches grow." Herzog's face again quickened with a smile. The old Oriental Theatre in Chicago. Three hours of entertainment for two bits.

  At the corner he paused to watch the work of the wrecking crew. The great metal ball swung at the walls, passed easily through brick, and entered the rooms, the lazy weight browsing on kitchens and parlors. Everything it touched wavered and burst, spilled down. There rose a white tranquil cloud of plaster dust. The afternoon was ending, and in the widening area of demolition was a fire, fed by the wreckage. Moses heard the air, softly pulled toward the flames, felt the heat. The workmen, heaping the bonfire with wood, threw strips of molding like javelins. Paint and varnish smoked like incense. The old flooring burned gratefully-the funeral of exhausted objects. Scaffolds walled with pink, white, green doors quivered as the six-wheeled trucks carried off fallen brick. The sun, now leaving for New Jersey and the west, was surrounded by a dazzling broth of atmospheric gases. Herzog observed that people were spattered with red stains, and that he himself was flecked on the arms and chest. He crossed Seventh Avenue and entered the subway.

 
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