Herzog by Saul Bellow


  Under the nails they seemed to him to be turning already into the blue loam of graves. She had begun to change into earth! He did not dare to look but listened to the runners of children's sleds in the street, and the grating of peddlers' wheels on the knotted ice, the hoarse call of the apple peddler and the rattle of his steel scale. The steam whispered in the vent. The curtain was drawn.

  In the corridor outside Magistrate's Court, he thrust both hands into his trousers pockets and drew up his shoulders. His teeth were on edge. A bookish, callow boy. And then, he thought, there was the funeral. How Willie cried in the chapel! It was his brother Willie, after all, who had the tender heart. But... Moses shook his head to be rid of such thoughts. The more he thought, the worse his vision of the past.

  He waited his turn at the phone booth. The instrument, when he got it, was humid from the many mouths and ears that used it. Herzog rang the number Simkin had given him. Wachsel said no, he had no messages from Simkin, but Mr. Herzog was welcome to come up and wait. "No, thanks, I'll phone again," Herzog said. He had absolutely no ability to wait in offices. He never had been able to wait for anything. "You don't happen to know-is he in the building somewhere?"

  "I know he's here, all right," said Wachsel. "I have an idea it's a criminal case. And that would be ..." He rattled off a list of room numbers.

  Herzog fixed on a few of these. He said, "I'll go and have a look around and call you again in half an hour, if you don't mind."

  "No, I don't mind. We're open for business all day! Whyn't you try the eighth floor. Little Napoleon- with that voice you should be able to hear him through the walls."

  In the first courtroom Herzog entered after getting this suggestion there was a jury trial. He was one of a small number of people in the polished wooden rows.

  Within a few minutes he had forgotten Simkin entirely.

  A young couple, a woman and the man she had been living with in a slum hotel, uptown, were being tried for the murder of her son, a child of three. She had had the boy by another man who deserted her, said the lawyer in his presentation. Herzog observed how gray and elderly all these lawyers were, people of another generation and a different circle of life-tolerant, comfortable people. The defendants could be identified by their looks and clothing. The man wore a stained and frayed zipper jacket and she, a redheaded woman, with a wide ruddy face, had on a brown print house dress. Both sat stolid, to all appearances unmoved by the testimony, he with his low sideburns and blond mustache, she with blunt freckled cheekbones and long, hidden eyes.

  She came from Trenton, born lame. Her father was a garage mechanic. She had a fourth-grade education, I.q .94. An older brother was the favorite; she was neglected. Unattractive, sullen, clumsy, wearing an orthopedic boot, she became delinquent at an early age. Her record was before the court, the lawyer went on, even, mild and pleasant. An angry uncontrollable girl, from first grade. There were affidavits from teachers. There were also medical and psychiatric records, and a neurological report to which the lawyer particularly wished to call the court's attention. This showed his client had been diagnosed by encephalogram as having a brain lesion capable of altering her behavior radically. She was known to have violent epileptoid fits of rage; her tolerance for emotions controlled from the affected lobe was known to be very low. Because she was a poor crippled creature, she had often been molested, later sexually abused by adolescent boys. Indeed, her file in children's court was very thick. Her mother loathed her, had refused to attend the trial, was quoted as saying, "This is no kid of mine. We wash our hands of her." The defendant was made pregnant at nineteen by a married man who lived with her several months, then went back to his wife and family. She refused to give the child for adoption, lived for a while in Trenton with it, and then moved to Flushing, where she cooked and cleaned for a family.

  On one of her weekends she met the other defendant, at the time employed as porter in a lunchroom on Columbus Avenue, and decided to live with him at the Montcalme Hotel on 103rd Street-Herzog had often passed the place. You could smell the misery of it from the street; its black stink flowed out through open windows-bedding, garbage, disinfectant, roach killer. His mouth was dry and he sat forward, straining to hear.

  The medical examiner was on the stand. Had he seen the dead child? Yes. Did he have a report to make?

  He did. He gave the date and circumstances of the examination. A hefty, bald, solemn man with fleshy and deliberate lips, he held his notes in both hands like a singer-the experienced, professional witness. The child, he said, was normally formed but seemed to have suffered from malnutrition. There were signs of incipient rickets, the teeth were already quite carious, but this was sometimes a symptom that the mother had had toxemia in pregnancy. were any unusual marks visible on the child's body? Yes, the little boy had apparently been beaten. Once, or repeatedly? In his opinion, often beaten. The scalp was torn. There were unusually heavy bruises on the back and legs.

  The shins were discolored. Where were the bruises heaviest? On the belly, and especially in the region of the genitals, where the boy seemed to have been beaten with something capable of breaking the skin, perhaps a metal buckle or the heel of a woman's shoe.

  "And what internal findings did you make?" the prosecutor went on. There were two broken ribs, one an older break. The more recent one had done some damage to the lung. The boy's liver had been ruptured. The hemorrhage caused by this may have been the immediate cause of death. There was also a brain injury. "In your opinion, then, the child died violently?"

  "That is my opinion. The liver injury would have been enough."

  All this seemed to Herzog exceptionally low-pitched.

  All-the lawyers, the jury, the mother, her tough friend, the judge-behaved with much restraint, extremely well controlled and quiet-spoken. Such calm-inversely proportionate to the murder? he was thinking. Judge, jury, lawyers and the accused, all looked utterly unemotional. And he himself? He sat in his new madras coat and held his hard straw hat. He gripped his hat strongly and felt sick at heart. The ragged edge of the straw made marks on his fingers.

  A witness was sworn, a solid-looking man of thirty-five or so, in a stylish oxford gray summer suit, of Madison Avenue cut. His face was round, full, jowly, but his head had little height above the ears and was further flattened by his butch haircut. He made very good gestures, pulling up his trouser legs as he sat, freeing his shirt cuffs and leaning forward to answer questions with measured, earnest, masculine politeness. His eyes were dark. You could see his scalp furrow as he frowned, weighing his answers. He identified himself as a salesman in the storm-window business, screens and storm windows. Herzog knew what he meant-aluminum sashes with triple tracks: he had read the ads. The witness lived in Flushing. Did he know the accused woman? She was asked to stand, and she did, a short hobbling figure, dark-red hair frizzy, the long eyes recessed, skin freckled, lips thick and dun-colored.

  Yes, he knew her, she had lived in his house eight months ago, not exactly employed by him, no, she was a distant cousin of his wife, who felt sorry for her and gave her a room-he had built a small apartment in the attic; separate bathroom, air-conditioner. She was asked to help with housework, naturally, but she also took off and left the boy for days at a time. Did he ever know her to mistreat the child? The kid was never clean. You never wanted to hold him on your lap. He had a cold sore, and his wife at last put salve on it, as the mother would not. The child was quiet, undemanding, clung to its mother, a frightened little boy, and he had a bad smell. Could the witness further describe the mother's attitude? Well, on the road, they were driving to visit the grandmother and stopped at Howard Johnson's. Everyone ordered. She had a barbecued beef sandwich and when it came began to eat and fed the child nothing. Then he himself (indignant) gave the boy some of his meat and gravy.

  I fail to understand! thought Herzog, as this good man, jowls silently moving, got off the stand. I fail to... but this is the difficulty with people who spend their lives in humane studies
and therefore imagine once cruelty has been described in books it is ended. Of course he really knew better-understood that human beings would not live so as to be understood by the Herzogs. Why should they?

  But he had no time to think of this. The next witness was already sworn, the clerk at the Montcalme; a bachelor in his fifties; slack lips, large creases, damaged cheeks, hair that looked touched up, voice deep and melancholy, with a sinking rhythm to every sentence. The sentences sank down, down, until the last words were lost in rumbling syllables.

  An alcoholic once, judged Herzog from the look of his skin, and there was a certain faggotty prissiness in his speech, too. He said he had kept an eye on this "unfortunate pair." They rented a housekeeping room. The woman drew Relief money. The man had no occupation. The police came a few times to ask about him. And the boy, could he tell the court anything about him? Mostly that the child cried a lot. Tenants complained, and when he investigated he found the kid was kept shut in a closet. For discipline, was what the defendant told him. But toward the end the boy cried less. On the day of his death, however, there was a lot of noise. He heard something falling, and shrieks from the third floor. Both the mother and the boy were screaming. Someone was fooling with the elevator, so he ran upstairs. Knocked at the door, but she was screaming too loud to hear. So he opened it and stepped in. Would he tell the court what he saw?

  He saw the woman with the boy in her arms. He thought she was hugging him, but to his astonishment she threw him from her with both arms. He was hurled against the wall.

  This made the noise he had been hearing below. Was anyone else present? Yes, the other defendant was lying on the bed, smoking. And was the child now screaming? No, at this time he was lying silent on the floor. Did the clerk then speak? He said he was frightened by the look of the woman, her swollen face.

  She turned red, crimson, and screamed with all her might, and she stamped her foot, the one with the built-up heel, he noticed, and he was afraid she would go for his eyes with her nails. He then went to call the police. Soon the man came downstairs. He explained that her boy was a problem child. She could not toilet-train him. He drove her wild sometimes the way he dirtied himself. And the crying all night! So they were talking when the squad car came. And found the child dead? Yes, he was dead when they arrived.

  "Cross-examination?" said the bench. The defense lawyer waived examination with a movement of long white fingers, and the judge said, "You may step down. That will be all."

  When the witness stood, Herzog stood up, too.

  He had to move, had to go. Again he wondered whether he was going to come down with sickness. Or was it the terror of the child that had gotten into him? Anyway, he felt stifled, as if the valves of his heart were not closing and the blood were going back into his lungs.

  He walked heavily and quickly. Turning once in the aisle, he saw only the lean gray head of the judge, whose lips silently moved as he read one of his documents.

  Reaching the corridor, he said to himself, "Oh my God!" and in trying to speak discovered an acrid fluid in his mouth that had to be swallowed. Then stepping away from the door he stumbled into a woman with a cane. Black-browed, her hair very black though she was middle-aged, she pointed downward with the cane, instead of speaking. He saw that she wore a cast with metal clogs on the foot and that her toenails were painted. Then getting down the loathsome taste, he said, "I'm sorry." He had a sick repulsive headache, piercing and ugly. He felt as if he had gotten too close to a fire and scalded his lungs. She did not speak at all but was not ready to let him off. Her eyes, prominent, severe, still kept him standing, identifying him thoroughly, fully, deeply, as a fool. Again-silently- Thou fool!

  In the red-striped jacket, the hat tucked under his arm, hair uncombed, eyes swollen, he waited for her to go. When she left at last, going, cane, cast, clogs, down the speckled corridor, he concentrated. With all his might-mind and heart-he tried to obtain something for the murdered child. But what?

  How? He pressed himself with intensity, but "all his might" could get nothing for the buried boy.

  Herzog experienced nothing but his own human feelings, in which he found nothing of use. What if he felt moved to cry? Or pray? He pressed hand to hand.

  And what did he feel? Why he felt himself-his own trembling hands, and eyes that stung. And what was there in modern, post... post-Christian America to pray for? Justice-justice and mercy? And pray away the monstrousness of life, the wicked dream it was? He opened his mouth to relieve the pressure he felt. He was wrung, and wrung again, and wrung again, again.

  The child screamed, clung, but with both arms the girl hurled it against the wall. On her legs was ruddy hair. And her lover, too, with long jaws and zooty sideburns, watching on the bed. Lying down to copulate, and standing up to kill. Some kill, then cry. Others, not even that.

  NEW YORK could not hold him now. He had to go to Chicago to see his daughter, confront Madeleine and Gersbach. The decision was not reached; it simply arrived. He went home and changed from the new clothes in which he had been diverting himself, into an old seersucker suit. Luckily, he had not unpacked when he came back from the Vineyard. He checked the valise quickly and left the apartment.

  Characteristically, he was determined to act without clearly knowing what to do, and even recognizing that he had no power over his impulses. He hoped that on the plane, in the clearer atmosphere, he would understand why he was flying.

  The superjet carried him to Chicago in ninety minutes, due west, flying against the rotation of the planet and giving him an extension of afternoon and sunlight. Beneath, the white clouds were foaming. And the sun, like the spot that inoculated us against the whole of disintegrating space. He looked into the blue vacancy and at the sharp glitter of wingborne engines. When the plane bucked, he held his lip with his teeth. Not that he feared flying, but it occurred to him that if the ship were to crash, or simply explode (as had happened over Maryland recently, when human figures were seen to spill and fall like shelled peas), Gersbach would become June's guardian. Unless Simkin tore up the will.

  Dear Simkin, shrewd Simkin, tear up that will!

  There would also be two insurance policies, one bought by Father Herzog for his son Moshe. Only see how this child, young Herzog, had turned out-wrinkled, perplexed, pain at heart. I'm telling myself the truth. As heaven is my witness.

  The stewardess offered him a drink, which he refused with a shake of the head. He felt incapable of looking into the girl's pretty, healthful face.

  As the jet landed, Herzog turned back his watch.

  He hurried from gate 38 and down the long corridor to the auto rental office. To identify himself, he had an American Express card, his Massachusetts' driver's license, his university credentials. He himself would have been suspicious of such diverse addresses, to say nothing of the soiled, wrinkled seersucker suit worn by this applicant, Moses Elkanah Herzog; but the official who took his application, a sweet-mannered, bosomy, curly, fat-nosed little woman (even in his present state Herzog felt moved to smile faintly) only asked whether he wanted a convertible or a hardtop. He chose the hard-top, teal blue, and drove off, trying to find his way under the greenish glare of the lamps and dusty sunlight amid unfamiliar signs. He followed the winding cloverleaf into the Expressway and then joined the speeding traffic-in this zone, 60 m.p.h.

  He did not know these new sections of Chicago. Clumsy, stinking, tender Chicago, dumped on its ancient lake bottom; and this murky orange west, and the hoarseness of factories and trains, spilling gases and soot on the newborn summer. Traffic was heavy coming from the city, not on Herzog's side of the road, and he held the right lane looking for familiar street names. After Howard Street he was in the city proper and knew his way. Leaving the Expressway at Montrose, he turned east and drove to his late father's house, a small two-story brick building, one of a row built from a single blueprint-the pitched roof, the cement staircase inset on the right side, the window boxes the length of the front-room windows, the l
awn a fat mound of grass between the sidewalk and the foundation; along the curb, elms and those shabby cottonwoods with blackened, dusty, wrinkled bark, and leaves that turned very tough by midsummer. There were also certain flowers, peculiar to Chicago, crude, waxy things like red and purple crayon bits, in a special class of false-looking natural objects. These foolish plants touched Herzog because they were so graceless, so corny. He was reminded of his father's devotion to his garden, when old Herzog became a property owner toward the end of his life-how he squirted his flowers at evening with the hose and how rapt he looked, his lips quietly pleased and his straight nose relishing the odor of the soil. To right and left, as Herzog emerged from the rented hard-top, the sprinklers turned and danced, scattering bright drops, fizzing out iridescent veils. And this was the house in which Father Herzog had died a few years ago, on a summer night, sitting up in bed suddenly, saying, "Ich shtarb!"

  And then he died, and that vivid blood of his turned to soil, in all the shrunken passages of his body.

  And then the body, too-ah, God!- wastes away; and leaves its bones, and even the bones at last wear away and crumble to dust in that shallow place of deposit. And thus humanized, this planet in its galaxy of stars and worlds goes from void to void, infinitesimal, aching with its unrelated significance.

  Unrelated?

  Herzog, with one of his Jewish shrugs, whispered, "Nu, maile..

  .." Be that as it may. In any case, here was his late father's house in which the widow lived, Moses' very ancient stepmother, quite alone in this small museum of the Herzogs. The bungalow belonged to the family. No one wanted it now. Shura was a multimillionaire, he made that obvious enough.

  Willie had gone far in his father's construction-materials business-owned a fleet of those trucks with tremendous cylinder bodies that mixed cement en route to the job where it was funneled, pumped (moses was vague about it) into the rising skyscrapers. Helen, if her husband was not in Willie's class, was at least well off. She rarely spoke of money any more. And he himself? He had about six hundred dollars in the bank. Still, for his purposes, he had what he needed. Poverty was not his portion; unemployment, slums, the perverts, thieves, victims in court, the horror of the Montcalme Hotel and its housekeeping rooms, smelling of decay and deadly bug juice-these were not for him. He could still take the superjet to Chicago when he had the impulse, could rent a teal-blue Falcon, drive to the old house. Thus he realized with peculiar clarity his position in the scale of prerogatives-of affluence, of insolence, of untruth, if you like. And not only his position, but when lovers quarreled they had a Lincoln Continental to shut a weeping child up in.

 
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