Herzog by Saul Bellow


  Herzog dialed, and found Simkin in. At once-it was a ritual-Simkin began complaining. It was June, the month for weddings, two junior members of the firm were absent-honeymooning. What idiots! "Well, Professor," he said, "I haven't seen you in a while. What's on your mind?"

  "First, Harvey, I ought to ask whether you can advise me. You are a friend of Madeleine's family, after all."

  "Let's say, instead, that I have a relationship with them. For you I have sympathy. No Pontritter needs my sympathy, least of all Madeleine, that bitch."

  "Recommend another lawyer if you want to keep out of it."

  "Lawyers can be expensive. You aren't rolling in money, I take it."

  Of course, Herzog reflected, Harvey is curious. He'd like to know as much as possible about my situation. Am I being sensible? Ramona wants me to consult her lawyer. But that might commit me to something else again. Besides, her lawyer would want to protect Ramona from me. "When are you free, Harvey?" said Herzog.

  "Listen-I picked up two paintings by a Yugoslavian primitive-Pachich. He's just in from Brazil."

  "Can we meet for lunch?"

  "Not today. Lately the Angel of Death has taken charge...." Herzog recognized the peculiar notes of Jewish comedy that Simkin loved, his elaborate shows of dread, his cosmic mock dismay. "Getting and spending I lay waste my powers..." Simkin went on. "Half an hour."

  "Let's have dinner at Macario's. I'll bet you never even heard of it.... I thought not. You are a hick." He shouted harshly to his secretary, "Bring me that column Earl Wilson wrote about Macario. You hear me, Tilly?"

  "Are you busy all day long?"

  "I have to go to court. Those schmucks are in Bermuda with their brides while I fight the Moloch-ha-movos alone. Do you know what you pay for one serving of spaghetti al burro at Macario's?

  Guess."

  I must go along, Herzog reflected. He rubbed his brows with thumb and forefinger. "Three-fifty?"

  "Is that your idea of expensive? Five dollars and fifty cents!"

  "My God, what do they put in it?"

  "Sprinkled with gold dust, not cheese. No, seriously, I have to try a case today. I-myself. And I loathe courtrooms."

  "Let me pick you up hi a cab and drive you downtown. I'll be right over."

  "But I'm waiting for the client here. I'll tell you what, if I have a few minutes to spare later...

  You sound very nervous. My cousin Wachsel is in the District Attorney's office. I'll leave word with him.... Well, as long as my guy isn't here yet, why don't you tell me what it's all about."

  "It's about my daughter."

  "You want to sue for custody?"

  "Not necessarily. I'm concerned about her. I don't know how the child is."

  "Besides which, you'd like to get revenge, I imagine."

  "I send the support money! regularly and always ask after June, but never a word in reply.

  Himmelstein, the lawyer in Chicago, said I wouldn't stand a chance in a custody suit. But I don't know how the girl is being brought up. I do know they shut her up in the car when she bothers them.

  How far do they go?"

  "Do you think Madeleine is an unfit mother?"

  "Of course I think so, but I hesitate to rush between the kid and her mother."

  "Is she living with this guy, your buddy? Remember when you were running away to Poland last year and made your will? You named him executor and guardian."

  "I did? Yes... I remember now. I guess I did."

  He could hear the lawyer coughing, and knew it was a feigned cough; Simkin was laughing. You could hardly blame him. Herzog himself was somewhat amused by his sentimental faith hi "best friends," and could not help thinking how much he must have added to Gersbach's pleasure by his gullibility. Obviously, thought Moses, I wasn't fit to look after my own interests, and proved my incompetence every day. A stupid prick!

  "I was kind of surprised when you named him," said Simkin.

  "Why, did you know anything?"

  "No, but there was something about his looks, his clothes, his loud voice, and his phony Yiddish. And such an exhibitionist! I didn't like the way he hugged you.

  Even kissed you, if I recall...."

  "That's his exuberant Russian personality."

  "Oh, I'm not saying he's queer, exactly,"

  Simkin said. "Well, is Madeleine shacked up with this gorgeous guardian? You could at least investigate. Why don't you hire a private investigator?"

  "A detective! Of course!"

  "The idea grabs you?"

  "It certainly does! Why didn't I think of it myself?"

  "Do you have the kind of money that takes? Now that's real money!"

  "I go back to work in a few months."

  "Even so, what can you earn?" Simkin always spoke of Moses' earnings with a ring of sadness. Poor intellectuals, so badly treated. He seemed to wonder why Herzog did not resent this.

  But Herzog still accepted Depression standards.

  "I can borrow."

  "Private investigation costs a tremendous amount.

  I'll explain it to you." He paused. "The big corporations have created a new aristocracy under the present tax structure. Cars, planes, hotel suites-fringe benefits. Also restaurants, theaters, et cetera, good private schools have been priced out of range for the low-salaried man. Even the cost of prostitution. The deductible medical expense has enriched psychiatrists, so even suffering costs more now. As for the various dodges in insurance, real estate, et cetera, I could tell you about them, too. Everything is subtler. Large organizations have their own C. i. a. Scientific spies who steal secrets from other corporations.

  Anyhow, detectives get big fees from the carriage trade, so that when you low-income fellows come along you have to deal with the worst element in this racket. Many a plain blackmailer calls himself a private investigator. Now I could give you a piece of useful advice. Do you want it?"

  "Yes-yes, I do. But..." Herzog hesitated.

  "But what's my angle?" Simkin, as Herzog had intended, put the question for him. "I suppose you're the only person in New York who doesn't know how Madeleine turned on me-such slander! And I was like an uncle to her.

  Living in lofts, among those theater types, the child was like a frightened puppy. I took pity on Mady.

  I gave her dolls. I took her to the circus.

  When she was old enough to enter Radcliffe, I paid for her wardrobe. But then when she was converted by that dude monsignor I tried to talk to her; and she called me a hypocrite and crook. She said I was a social climber, using her father's connections, and nothing but an ignorant Jew. Ignorant! I took the Latin medal at Boys' High in 1917. All right. But then she injured a little cousin of mine, an epileptic girl, a sickly, immature, innocent frail mouse of a woman who couldn't take care of herself-never mind the awful details."

  "What did she do?"

  "That's another long story."

  "So you're not protecting Madeleine any more. I didn't hear what she said against you."

  "Maybe you don't remember it. She gave me some pretty sharp wounds, believe me.

  Never mind that. I'm a greedy old money-grubber-I don't claim I'm a candidate for sainthood, but... Well, that's just the frenzy of the world. Maybe you don't always take cognizance, Professor, being absorbed in the true the good and the beautiful like Herr Goethe."

  "Okay, Harvey. I know I'm not a realist. I haven't got the strength to make all the judgments a man must make to be realistic. What advice were you going to give me?"

  "Here's something to think about, as long as my stinking client hasn't arrived. If you really want to bring suit..."

  "Himmelstein said a jury would take one look at my gray hairs and give a verdict against me.

  Perhaps I could dye my hair."

  "Get a clean-cut gentile lawyer from one of the big firms. Don't have a lot of Jews yelling in the court. Give your case dignity. Then you subpoena all the principals, Madeleine, Gersbach, Mrs. Gersbach, and put them on the stand under oath. Warn them
of perjury. If the questions are asked in the right way, and I'm willing to coach your clean-cut lawyer, and mastermind the whole trial, you'll never have to touch a hair of your head."

  With his sleeve, Herzog wiped the sweat that broke out on his forehead. He was suddenly very hot. The heat, which pricked his skin, also released the scent of Ramona's body which he had absorbed. It was mixed with his own odors.

  "Are you with me?"

  "I'm listening, go on," said Herzog.

  "They'll have to come clean, and they themselves will make your whole case for you. We can ask Gersbach when this affair with Madeleine started, how he got you to bring him to the Midwest-you did, didn't you?"

  "I got him the job. I rented the house for them.

  I arranged to have the garbage-disposal unit installed in the sink. I measured the windows so that Phoebe could decide whether to bring her drapes from Massachusetts."

  Simkin made one of his token exclamations of astonishment. "Well, which woman is he living with?"

  "That I don't really know. I'd like to confront him myself-could I conduct the examination in court?"

  "That's not feasible. But the lawyer can ask your questions for you. You could crucify that cripple. And Madeleine-she's had it all her own way so far.

  It never enters her mind that you have any rights.

  Wouldn't she come down to earth with a bang!"

  "I often think, if she died I'd get my daughter back. There are times when I know I could look at Madeleine's corpse without pity."

  "They tried to murder you,"

  Simkin said. "In a manner of speaking, they meant to." Herzog sensed that his words about Madeleine's death had excited Simkin and made him eager to hear more. He wants me to say that I actually feel capable of murdering them both. Well, it's true.

  I've tested it in my mind with a gun, a knife, and felt no horror, no guilt. None. And I could never imagine such a crime before. So perhaps I might kill them. But I'll say no such thing to Harvey.

  Simkin went on: "In court, you must prove they have an adulterous relationship to which the child is exposed.

  In itself, sexual intimacy doesn't count. An Illinois court gave custody to a call girl, the mother, because whatever tricks she performed, she saved them for hotel rooms. The courts don't expect to stop the whole sexual revolution of our time. But if the fucking is at home and the child exposed to it, the judicial attitude is different. Damage to the little psyche."

  Herzog listened, looking through the window with a hard gaze, and tried to master the spasms of his stomach and the twisted, knotted sensations of his heart. The telephone seemed to pick up the sound of his blood, rhythmic, thin, and quick, washing within his skull. Perhaps it was only a nervous reflex of his eardrums. The membranes appeared to shiver.

  "Understand," said Simkin, "it would hit all the Chicago papers."

  "I've got nothing to lose, I'm practically forgotten in Chicago. The scandal would hit Gersbach, not me," said Herzog.

  "How do you figure?"

  "He's on the make everywhere and cultivates all the Chicago hotshots-clergymen, newspapermen, professors, television guys, federal judges, Hadassah ladies. Jesus Christ, he never lets up. He organizes new combinations on television. Like Paul Tillich and Malcolm X and Hedda Hopper on one program."

  "I thought the fellow was a poet and a radio announcer. Now he sounds like a TV impresario."

  "He's a poet in mass communications."

  "He really has got you, hasn't he. By golly, if this isn't something in your bloodstream."

  "Well, how would you like it if you woke up to see that all your best tries were nothing but sleepwalking?"

  "But I don't understand this Gersbach's game."

  "I'll tell you. He's a ringmaster, popularizer, liaison for the elites. He grabs up celebrities and brings them before the public. And he makes all sorts of people feel that he was exactly what they've been looking for. Subtlety for the subtle. Warmth for the warm. For the crude, crudity. For the crooks, hypocrisy. Atrocity for the atrocious. Whatever your heart desires.

  Emotional plasma which can circulate in any system."

  Simkin was perfectly delighted with such an outburst, Herzog knew. He even understood that the lawyer was winding him up, putting him on. But that did not stop him. "I've tried to see him as a type. Is he an Ivan the Terrible? Is he a would-be Rasputin? Or the poor man's Cagliostro? Or a politician, orator, demagogue, rhapsode? Or some kind of Siberian shaman? Those are often transvestites or androgynes...."

  "Do you mean to say that those philosophers you've studied for so many years are all frustrated by one Valentine Gersbach?" said Simkin. "All those years of Spinoza-Hegel?"

  "You're ribbing me, Simkin."

  "Sorry. That wasn't a good joke."

  "I don't mind. It seems true. Like taking swimming lessons on the kitchen table. Well, I can't answer for the philosophers. Maybe power philosophy, Thomas Hobbes, could analyze him. But when I think of Valentine I don't think of philosophy, I think of the books I devoured as a boy, on the French and Russian revolutions. And silent movies, like Mme. Sans Gene -Gloria Swanson. Or Emil Jannings as a Czarist general. Anyway, I see the mobs breaking into the palaces and churches and sacking Versailles, wallowing in cream desserts or pouring wine over their dicks and dressing in purple velvet, snatching crowns and miters and crosses...."

  Herzog knew very well when he talked like this that he was again in the grip of that eccentric, dangerous force that had been capturing him. It was at work now, and he felt himself bending. At any moment he might hear a crack. He must stop this. He heard Simkin laughing softly and steadily to himself with, probably, one small hand placed in restraint on his fat chest, and wrinkles of cheerful satire in play about his bushy eyes and hairy ears.

  "Emancipation resulting in madness. Unlimited freedom to choose and play a tremendous variety of roles with a lot of coarse energy."

  "I never saw a man pour wine over his dick in any movie-when did you ever see that?" said Simkin.

  "At the Museum of Modern Art? Besides, in your mind, you don't identify yourself with Versailles or the Kremlin or the old regime, or anything like that, do you?"

  "No, no, of course not. It's nothing but a metaphor, and probably not a good one. I only meant to say that Gersbach won't let anything go, he tries everything on. For instance, if he took away my wife, did he have to suffer my agony for me, too? Because he could do even that better? And if he's such a tragic-love figure, practically a demigod in his own eyes, does he have to be also the greatest of fathers and family men? His wife says he's an ideal husband. Her only complaint was that he was so horny. She said he was on top of her every night. She couldn't keep up the pace."

  "Who did she complain to?"

  "Why, to her best friend, Madeleine, of course.

  Who else? And the truth is that Valentine is a family man, along with everything else. He alone knew how I felt about my kid and wrote me weekly reports about her, faithfully, with real kindliness. Until I found out he gave me the grief he was consoling me for."

  "What did you do then?"

  "I looked all over Chicago for him. Finally, I sent him a telegram from the airport as I was leaving. I wanted to say that I'd kill him on sight. But Western Union doesn't accept such messages. So I wired five words-Dirt Enters At The Heart. The first letters spell death."

  "I'm sure he was bowled over by the threat."

  Herzog did not smile. "I don't know. He is superstitious. But as I said, he is a family man. He fixes the appliances at home. When the kid needs a snow-suit he shops for it. He goes to Hillman's basement and brings back rolls and pickled herring in his shopping bag.

  In addition, he's a sportsman-college boxing champ at Oneonta, despite his wooden leg, he says. With pinochle players he plays pinochle, with rabbis it's Martin Buber, with the Hyde Park Madrigal Society he sings madrigals."

  "Well," said Simkin, "he's nothing but a psychopath on the make, boastful and exhibitionistic. A bit cl
inical, maybe, except that he's a recognizable Jewish type.

  One of those noisy crooks with a booming voice.

  What kind of car does this promoter poet drive?"

  "A Lincoln Continental."

  "Heh, heh."

  "But as soon as he slams the door of his Continental he begins to talk like Karl Marx. I heard him at the Auditorium with an audience of two thousand people. It was a symposium on desegregation, and he let loose a blast against the affluent society. That's how it is. If you've got a good job, about fifteen grand a year, and health insurance, and a retirement fund, and maybe some stock as well, why shouldn't you be a radical too? Literate people appropriate all the best things they can find in books, and dress themselves in them just as certain crabs are supposed to beautify themselves with seaweed. And then there was the audience, a comfortable audience of conventional business people and professionals who look after their businesses and specialties well enough, but seem confused about everything else and come to hear a speaker express himself confidently, with emphasis and fire, direction and force. With a head like a flaming furnace, a voice like a bowling alley, and the wooden leg drumming the stage. To me he's a curiosity, like a Mongolian idiot singing A'ida.

  But to them... his "By golly, you are worked up," said Simkin. "Why are you suddenly talking about the opera? As you describe him, it's perfectly plain to me the fellow is an actor, and I know damn well Madeleine is an actress. That I've always realized. But take it easy. This exaggeration is bad for you. You eat yourself alive."

  Moses was silent, shutting his eyes for a moment. Then he said, "Well, maybe so..."

  "Wait up, Moses, I think my client is here."

  "Oh, all right, I won't keep you. Let's have your cousin's number and I'll meet you downtown later."

  "This can't wait."

  "No, I have to reach a decision today."

  "Well, I'll try to find a little time. Now taper off."

  "I need fifteen minutes," said Herzog.

  "I'll prepare all my questions."

  Moses as he took Wachsel's number was thinking that perhaps the best thing he could do was to stop asking people for advice and help. That in itself might change the entire picture. He printed Wachsel's number more legibly on the pad. In the background he heard Simkin shouting rudely at his client.

 
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