Herzog by Saul Bellow


  Face white, mouth grim, he mounted the stairs in the shadow of approaching sunset, and pressed the button. It had a crescent moon in the middle which righted up at night.

  The chimes rang inside, those chromium tubes above the door, xylophone metal, that played "Merrily We Roll Along," all but the last two notes. He had long to wait. The old woman, Taube, always had been slow, even in her fifties, thorough, deliberate, totally unlike the dexterous Herzogs-they had all inherited their father's preposterous quickness and elegance, something of the assertiveness of that one-man march with which old Herzog had defiantly paraded through the world. Moses was rather fond of Taube, he told himself; perhaps to feel differently toward her would have been too troubling. The unsteady gaze of her round prominent eyes was possibly caused by a radical resolve to be slow, a lifelong program of delay and stasis.

  Creepingly, she accomplished every last goal she set herself. She ate, or sipped, slowly. She did not bring the cup to her mouth but moved her lips out toward it. And she spoke very slowly, to give her shrewdness scope.

  She cooked with fingers that did not grip firmly but was an excellent cook. She won at cards, poking along, but won. All questions she asked two or three times, and repeated the answers half to herself.

  With the same slowness she braided her hair, she brushed her exposed teeth, or chopped figs, dates, and senna leaves for her digestion. Her lip grew pendulous as she aged and her neck gradually thickened at the shoulders so that she had to hold her head forward somewhat. Oh, she was very old now, in her eighties and far from well. She was arthritic; one eye had a cataract. But unlike Polina she had a clear mind. No doubt her troubles with Father Herzog, stormier and more hot-headed and fractious as he aged, had strengthened her brain.

  The house was dark, and anyone but Moses would have gone away, assuming there was no one at home. He, however, waited, knowing she would presently open. In his youth he had watched her take five minutes to open a bottle of soda-an hour to spread the dough over the table when she baked. Her strudel was like jeweler's work, and filled with red and green gems of preserves. At last he heard her at the door.

  Links of brass chain rose in the narrow opening. He saw old Taube's dark eyes, more somber now, and more extruded. The glass winter door still separated her from Moses. He knew it would also be locked. The old people had been guarded and suspicious in their own house. Moreover, Moses knew the light was behind him; he might not be recognized. And he was not the same Moses, anyway. But, although she studied him like a stranger, she had already identified him. Her intellect was not slow, whatever else.

  "Who is it?"

  "It's Moses..."

  "I don't know you. I'm alone. Moses?"

  "Tante Taube-Moses Herzog. Moshe."

  "Ah-Moshe."

  Slow lame fingers released the catch. The door was shut to free the links from strain, and then opened, and-merciful God!-what a face he saw, how grooved with woe and age, lined downward at the mouth!

  As he came in she raised feeble hands to embrace him. "Moshe... Come in. I'll make a light. Shut the door, Moshe."

  He found the switch and turned on the very dim bulb of the entry hall. It shed a pinkish color; the old-fashioned glass of the fixture reminded him of the ner tamid, the vigil light in the synagogue. He shut the door on the watered fragrance of lawns as he entered. The house was close and faintly sour with furniture polish. The remembered luster was there in the faint twilit parlor-cabinets and tables, with inlaid tops, the brocaded sofa in its gleaming protective plastic, the Oriental rug, the drapes perfect and rigid on the windows with laterally rigid Venetian blinds. A lamp went on behind him. He discovered on the console phonograph a smiling picture of Marco as a little boy, bare-kneed, on a bench, a fresh face, and charming, dark hair combed forward. And next to it was he himself in a photo taken when he got his M. a., handsome but somewhat jowly. His younger face expressed the demands of ingenuous conceit. A man in years he then was, but in years only, and in his father's eyes stubbornly un-European, that is, innocent by deliberate choice. Moses refused to know evil. But he could not refuse to experience it.

  And therefore others were appointed to do it to him, and then to be accused (by him) of wickedness. Among the rest was a picture of Father Herzog in his last incarnation-an American citizen-handsome, smooth-shaven, with none of his troubled masculine defiance, his one-time impetuousness or passionate protest. Still, to see Father Herzog's face in his own house melted Moses. Tante Taube was coming up with slow steps. She kept no photograph of herself here. Moses knew that she had been a stunning girl, despite her Habsburg lip; and even in her fifties when he first knew her as the Widow Kaplitzky she had had thick handsome strong brows and a heavy braid of animal brown; a soft if somewhat slack figure held rigid by her "gorselette." She didn't want to be reminded of her beauty or her former vigor.

  "Let me look at you," she said, coming before him.

  Her eyes were puffy, but steady enough. He stared at her, and tried to prevent the horror from coming into his face. He guessed that it was putting in her plates that had delayed her. She had new ones, poorly made-no arch but a straight line of teeth. Like a woodchuck, he thought. Her fingers were disfigured, with loose skin that had worked forward over the nails. But those fingertips were painted. And what changes did she see in him? "Ach, Moshe, you changed."

  He limited his answer to a nod. "And how are you?"

  "You see. The living dead."

  "You live alone?"

  "I had a woman-Bella Ockinoff from the fish store. You knowed her. But she was not clean."

  "Come, Tante, sit down."

  "Oh, Moshe," she said, "I can't sit, I can't stand, can't lay. Better, already, next to Pa. Pa is better off than me."

  "Is it so bad?" Herzog must have betrayed more emotion than he knew, for he now found her eyes examining him rather sharply, as if she did not believe that his feeling was for her and tried to find the real source of it. Or was it the cataract that gave her that expression? He guided her to a chair, holding her arm, and sat on the plastic-covered sofa. Under the tapestry. Pierrot. Clair de Lune.

  Venetian moonlight. All that phooey banality that oppressed him in his student days. It had no special power over him now. He was another man and had different purposes. The old woman, he saw, was trying to find what he had come for. She sensed that he was strongly agitated, missed his habitual vagueness, the proud air of abstraction in which M. E. Herzog, Ph. d., had once been clothed.

  Them days is gone forever.

  "You working hard, Moshe?"

  "Yes."

  "Making a living?"

  "Oh, yes."

  The old woman bowed her head a moment. He saw the scalp, her thin gray hair. Exiguous. The organism had done all it could.

  He clearly understood that she was communicating her right to live in this Herzog property, even though by staying alive she was depriving him of this remaining part of the estate.

  "It's okay, I don't grudge you, Tante Taube," he said.

  "What?"

  "Just go on living, and don't worry about the property."

  "You're not dressed well, Moshe. What's the matter, is it a hard time?"

  "No. I wore an old suit for the plane."

  "You got business in Chicago?"

  "Yes, Tante."

  "The children all right? Marco?"

  "He's at camp."

  "Daisy didn't married yet?"

  "No."

  "You have to pay her alimony?"

  "Not very much."

  "I was not a bad stepmother? Tell the truth."

  "You were a good stepmother. You were very good."

  "I did mine best," she said, and in this meekness he glimpsed her old disguises-the elaborate and powerful role she had played with Father Herzog as the patient Widow Kaplitzky, once wife of Kaplitzky the prominent wholesaler, childless, his only darling, wearing a locket set with little rubies and traveling in Pullman drawing rooms-the Portland Rose, the 20th Century-or on
the Berengaria, first class. As the second Mrs. Herzog she did not have an easy life. She had good reason to mourn Kaplitzky. his Gottseliger Kaplitzky," she always called him. And she once had told Moses, "Gottseliger Kaplitzky didn't want I should have children. The doctor thought it would be bad for mine heart.

  And every time...

  Kaplitzky-alehoshalom took care on everything. I didn't even looked."

  Recalling this, Herzog very briefly laughed.

  Ramona would like "I didn't even looked." She always looked, bent close, held back a falling lock of hair, cheeks flushing, greatly amused by his shyness. As last night, lying down, opening her arms to him... He must wire her. She would not understand his disappearance. And then the blood began to beat in his head. He remembered why he was here.

  He sat near the very spot where Father Herzog, the year before his death, had threatened to shoot him. The cause of his rage was money. Herzog was broke, and asked his father to underwrite a loan. The old man questioned him narrowly, about his job, his expenses, his child.

  He had no patience with Moses. At that time I was living in Philadelphia, alone, making my choice (it was no choice!) between Sono and Madeleine. Perhaps he had even heard I was about to be converted to Catholicism. Someone started such a rumor; it may have been Daisy. I was in Chicago then because Papa had sent for me. He wanted to tell me about the changes in his will. Day and night, he thought how he would divide his estate, and thought accordingly of each of us, what we deserved, how we would use it. At odd times, he'd telephone and tell me I had to come right away. I'd sit up all night on the train. And he'd take me into a corner and say, "I want you to hear, once and for all. Your brother Willie is an honest man. When I die, he'll do as we agreed."

  "I believe it, Papa."

  But he lost his temper every time, and when he wanted to shoot me it was because he could no longer bear the sight of me, that look of mine, the look of conceit or proud trouble. The elite look. I don't blame him, thought Moses as Taube slowly and lengthily described her ailments. Papa couldn't bear such an expression on the face of his youngest son. I aged. I wasted myself in stupid schemes, liberating my spirit. His heart ached angrily because of me. And Papa was not like some old men who become blunted toward their own death. No, his despair was keen and continual. And Herzog again was pierced with pain for his father.

  He listened awhile to Taube's account of her cortisone treatments. Her large, luminous, tame eyes, the eyes that had domesticated Father Herzog, were not watching Moses now. They gazed at a point beyond him and left him free to recall those last days of Father Herzog.

  We walked to Montrose together to buy cigarettes.

  It was June, warm like this, the weather bright. Papa wasn't exactly making sense. He said he should have divorced the Widow Kaplitzky ten years ago, that he had hoped to enjoy the last years of his life-his Yiddish became more crabbed and quaint in these conversations-but he had brought his iron to a cold forge.

  A kalte kuzhnya, Moshe. Kein fire.

  Divorce was impossible because he owed her too much money. "But you have money now, don't you?" said Herzog, blunt with him. His father stopped, staring into his face. Herzog was stunned to see in full summer light how much disintegration had already taken place. But the remaining elements, incredibly vivid, had all their old power over Moses-the straight nose, the furrow between the eyes, the brown and green colors in those eyes. "I need my money.

  Who'll provide for me- you? I may bribe the Angel of Death a long time yet." Then he bent his knees a little-Moses read that old signal; he had a lifetime of skill in interpreting his father's gestures: those bent knees meant that something of great subtlety was about to be revealed. "I don't know when I'll be delivered," Father Herzog whispered. He used the old Yiddish term for a woman's confinement- kimpet.

  Moses did not know what to say, and his answering voice was not much above a whisper. "Don't torment yourself, Papa." The horror of this second birth, into the hands of death, made his eyes shine, and his lips silently pressed together. Then Father Herzog said, "I have to sit down, Moshe. The sun is too hot for me." He did, suddenly, appear very flushed, and Moses supported him, eased him down on the cement embankment of a lawn. The old man's look was now one of injured male pride. "Even I feel the heat today," said Moses. He placed himself between his father and the sun.

  "I may go next month to St. Joe for the baths,"

  Taube was saying. "To the Whitcomb. It's a nice place."

  "Not alone?"

  "Ethel and Mordecai want to go."

  "Oh...?" He nodded, to keep her going. "How is Mordecai?"

  "How can he be in his age?" Moses was attentive until she was well started and then he returned to his father. They had had lunch on the back porch that day, and that was where the quarrel began. It had seemed to Moses, perhaps, that he was here as a prodigal son, admitting the worst and asking the old man's mercy, and so Father Herzog saw nothing except a stupid appeal in his son's face-incomprehensible.

  "Idiot!" was what the old man had shouted.

  "Calf!" Then he saw the angry demand underlying Moses' look of patience. "Get out! I leave you nothing! Everything to Willie and Helen! You...?

  Croak in a flophouse." Moses rising, Father Herzog shouted, "G. And don't come to my funeral."

  "All right, maybe I won't."

  Too late, Tante Taube had warned him to keep silent, raising her brows-she had still had brows then. Father Herzog rose, stumbling from the table, his face distorted, and ran to get his pistol.

  "Go, go! Come back later. I'll call you,"

  Taube had whispered to Moses, and he, confused, reluctant, burning, stung because his misery was not recognized in his father's house (this monstrous egotism making its peculiar demands)-he reluctantly got up from the table. "Quick, quick!" Taube tried to get him to the front door, but old Herzog overtook them with the pistol.

  He cried out, "I'll kill you!" And Herzog was startled not so much by this threat, which he did not believe, as by the return of his father's strength. In his rage he recovered it briefly, though it might cost him his life. The strained neck, the grinding of his teeth, his frightening color, even the military Russian strut with which he lifted the gun-these were better, thought Herzog, than his sinking down during a walk to the store. Father Herzog was not made to be pitiful.

  "Go, go," said Tante Taube. Moses was weeping then.

  "Maybe you'll die first," Father Herzog shouted.

  "Papa!"

  Half hearing Tante Taube's slow description of Cousin Mordecai's approaching retirement, Herzog grimly recovered the note of that cry.

  Papa

  - Papa.

  You lout! The old man in his near-demented way was trying to act out the manhood you should have had.

  Coming to his house with that Christianized smirk of the long-suffering son. Might as well have been an outright convert, like Mady. He should have pulled the trigger. Those looks were agony to him. He deserved to be spared, in his old age.

  And then there was Moses with puffy weeping eyes, in the street, waiting for his cab, while Father Herzog hastily walked up and back before these windows, staring at him in agony of spirit-yes, you got that out of him.

  Walking quickly there, back and forth in his hasty style, dropping his weight on the one heel. The pistol thrown down. Who knows whether Moses shortened his life by the grief he gave him. Perhaps the stimulus of anger lengthened it. He could not die and leave this half-made Moses yet.

  They were reconciled the following year. And then more of the same. And then... death.

  "Should I make a cup of tea?" said Tante Taube.

  "Yes, please, I'd like that if you feel up to it.

  And I also want to look in Papa's desk."

  "Pa's desk? It's locked. You want to look in the desk? Everything belongs to you children. You could take the desk when I die."

  "No, no!" he said, "I don't need the desk itself, but I was passing from the airport and thought I'd see how yo
u were. And now that I'm here, I'd like to have a look in the desk. I know you don't mind."

  "You want something, Moshe? You took your Mama's silver coin case the last time,"

  He had given it to Madeleine.

  "Is Papa's watch chain still in there?"

  "I think Willie took it."

  He frowned with concentration. "Then what about the rubles?" he asked. "I'd like them for Marco."

  "Rubles?"

  "My grandfather Isaac bought Czarist rubles during the Revolution, and they've always been in the desk."

  "In the desk? I surely never seen them."

  "I'd like to look, while you make a cup of tea, Tante Taube. Give me the key."

  "The key...?" Questioning him before, she had spoken more quickly, but now she receded again into slowness, raising a mountain of dilatory will in his way.

  "Where do you keep it?"

  "Where? Where did I put it? Is it in Pa's dresser? Or somewheres else? Let me remember.

  That's how I am now, it's hard to remember...."

  "I know where it is," he said, suddenly rising.

  "You know where it is? So where is it?"

  "In the music box, where you always used to keep it."

  "In the music...? Pa took it from there. He locked up my social-security checks when they came. He said all the money he should have...."

 
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