Herzog by Saul Bellow

Moses knew he had guessed right. "Don't bother, I'll get it," he said. "If you'll put the kettle on. I'm very thirsty. It's been a hot, long day."

  He helped her to rise, holding her flaccid arm.

  He was having his way-a poor sort of victory and filled with dangerous consequences. Going forward without her, he entered the bedroom. His father's bed had been removed. Hers stood alone with its ugly bedspread-some material that reminded him of a coated tongue. He breathed the old spice, the dark, heavy air, and lifted the lid of the music box. In this house he had only to consult his memory to find what he wanted. The mechanism released its little notes as the cylinder turned within, the small spines picking out the notes from Figaro.

  Moses was able to supply the words: Nel momenta Delia mia cerimonia Io rideva di me Senza saperlo.

  His fingers recognized the key.

  Old Taube in the dark outside the bedroom said, "Did you found it?"

  He answered, "It's here," and spoke in a low, mild voice, not to make matters worse. The house was hers, after all. It was rude to invade it.

  He was not ashamed of this, he only recognized with full objectivity that it was not right. But it had to be done.

  "Do you want me to put the kettle on?"

  "No, a cup of tea I can still make."

  He heard her slow steps in the passage. She was going to the kitchen. Herzog quickly made for the small sitting room. The drapes were drawn. He turned on the lamp beside the desk. In seeking the switch he tore the ancient silk of the shade releasing a fine dust. The name of this color was old rose-he felt certain of it. He opened the cherry-wood secretary, braced the wide leaf on its runners, drawing them out from either side. Then he went back and shut the door, first making sure Taube had reached the kitchen. In the drawers he recognized each article- leather, paper, gold. Swift and tense, veins standing out on his head, and tendons on his hands, he groped, and found what he was looking for-Father Herzog's pistol. An old pistol, the barrel nickel-plated. Papa had bought it to keep on Cherry Street, in the railroad yards. Moses nipped the gun open. There were two bullets. This was it, then. He rapidly clicked it shut and put it in his pocket. There it made too large a bulge.

  He took out his wallet and replaced it with the gun.

  The wallet he buttoned in his hip pocket.

  Now he began to search for those rubles. Those he found in a small compartment with old passports, ribbons sealed in wax, like gobs of dried blood.

  La bourgeoise Sarah Herzog avec ses enfants, Alexandre huh ans, Helene neuf arts et Guillaume trois ans, signed by Count Adlerberg Gouverneur de St. Petersbourg.

  The rubles were in a large billfold-his playthings of forty years ago. Peter the Great in a rich coat of armor, and a splendid imperial Catherine. Lamplight revealed the watermarks.

  Recalling how he and Willie used to play casino for these stakes, Herzog uttered one of his short laughs, then made a nest of these large bills in his pocket for the pistol. He thought it must be less conspicuous now.

  "You got what you want?" Taube asked him in the kitchen.

  "Yes." He put the key on the enameled metal table.

  He knew it was not proper that he should think her expression sheep-like. This figurative habit of his mind crippled his judgment, and was likely to ruin him some day. Perhaps the day was near; perhaps this night his soul would be required of him. The gun weighed on his chest. But the protuberant lips, great eyes, and pleated mouth were sheep-like, and they warned him he was taking too many chances with destruction. Taube, a veteran survivor, to be heeded, had fought the grave to a standstill, balking death itself by her slowness. All had decayed but her shrewdness and her incredible patience; and in Moses she saw Father Herzog again, nervy and hasty, impulsive, suffering. His eye twitched as he bent toward her in the kitchen. She muttered, "You got a lot of trouble? Don't make it worser, Moshe."

  "There's no trouble, Tante. I have business to take care of.... I don't think I can wait for tea, after all."

  "I put out Pa's cup for you."

  Moses drank tap water from his father's teacup.

  "Good-by, Tante Taube, keep well." He kissed her forehead.

  "Remember I helped you?" she said. "You shouldn't forget. Take care, Moshe."

  He left by the back door; it made departure simpler. Honeysuckle grew along the rainspout, as in his father's time, and fragrant in the evening-almost too rich. Could any heart become quite petrified?

  He gunned his motor at the stoplight, trying to decide which was the faster route to Harper Avenue.

  The new Ryan Expressway was very quick but it would land him in the thick of the Negro traffic on West 51st Street, where people promenaded, or cruised in their cars. There was Garfield Boulevard, much better; however, he was not sure he could find his way through Washington Park after dark. He decided to follow Eden's to Congress Street and Congress to the Outer Drive. Yes, that would be fastest. What he would do when he got to Harper Avenue he hadn't yet decided. Madeleine had threatened him with arrest if he so much as showed his face near the house. The police had his picture, but that was sheer bunk, bunk and paranoia, the imperiousness of imaginary powers that had once impressed him. But there was now a real matter between him and Madeleine, a child, a reality-June. Out of cowardice, sickness, fraud, by a bungling father out of a plotting bitch, something genuine! This little daughter of his! He cried out to himself as he raced up the ramp of the Expressway that nobody would harm her.

  He accelerated, moving in his lane with the rest of the traffic. The thread of life was stretched tight in him. It quivered crazily. He did not fear its breaking so much as his failing to do what he should. The little Falcon was storming. He thought his speed was terrible until a huge trailer truck passed him on the right, when he realized that this was not the time to risk a traffic ticket-not with a pistol in his pocket-and lifted his foot from the pedal. Peering left and right, he recognized that the new Expressway had been cut through old streets, streets he knew. He saw the vast gas tanks, crowned with lights, from a new perspective, and the rear of a Polish church with a Christ in brocades exhibited in a lighted window, like a showcase. The long curve eastbound passed over the freight yards, burning with sunset dust, rails streaking westward; next, the tunnel: under the mammoth post office; next, the State Street honky-tonks. From the last slope of Congress Street the distortions of dusk raised up the lake like a mild wall crossed by bands, amethyst, murky blue, irregular silver, and a slate color at the horizon, boats hanging rocking inside the breakwater, and helicopters and small aircraft whose lights teetered overhead.

  The familiar odor of the fresh water, bland but also raw, reached him as he sped south. It did not seem illogical that he should claim the privilege of insanity, violence, having been made to carry the rest of it-name-calling and gossip, railroading, pain, even exile in Ludeyville. That property was to have been his madhouse. Finally, his mausoleum.

  But they had done something else to Herzog-unpredictable. It's not everyone who gets the opportunity to kill with a clear conscience. They had opened the way to justifiable murder. They deserved to die. He had a right to kill them. They would even know why they were dying; no explanation necessary. When he stood before them they would have to submit. Gersbach would only hang his head, with tears for himself. Like Nero- Qualis artifex pereo.

  Madeleine would shriek and curse. Out of hatred, the most powerful element in her life, stronger by far than any other power or motive. In spirit she was his murderess, and therefore he was turned loose, could shoot or choke without remorse. He felt in his arms and in his fingers, and to the core of his heart, the sweet exertion of strangling-horrible and sweet, an orgiastic rapture of inflicting death. He was sweating violently, his shirt wet and cold under his arms. Into his mouth came a taste of copper, a metabolic poison, a flat but deadly flavor.

  When he reached Harper Avenue he parked around the corner, and entered the alley that passed behind the house.

  Grit spilled on the concrete; broken glass a
nd gravelly ashes made his steps loud. He went carefully. The back fences were old here. Garden soil spilled under the slats, and shrubs and vines came over their tops. Once more he saw open honeysuckle. Even rambler roses, dark red in the dusk. He had to cover his face when he passed the garage because of the loops of briar that swung over the path from the sloping roof. When he stole into the yard he stood still until he could see his way. He must not stumble over a toy, or a tool. A fluid had come into his eyes comv clear, only somewhat distorting. He wiped it away with fingertips, and blotted, too, with the lapel of his coat. Stars had come out, violet points framed in roof shapes, leaves, strut wires. The yard was visible to him now. He saw the clothesline-Madeleine's underpants and his daughter's little shirts and dresses, tiny stockings. By the light of the kitchen window he made out a sandbox in the grass, a new red sandbox with broad ledges to sit on. Stepping nearer, he looked into the kitchen. Madeleine was there! He stopped breathing as he watched her. She was wearing slacks and a blouse fastened with a broad red leather and brass belt he had given her. Her smooth hair hung loose as she moved between the table and the sink, cleaning up after dinner, scraping dishes in her own style of abrupt efficiency. He studied her straight profile as she stood at the sink, the flesh under her chin as she concentrated on the foam in the sink, tempering the water. He could see the color in her cheeks, and almost the blue of her eyes. Watching, he fed his rage, to keep it steady, up to full strength. She was not likely to hear him in the yard because the storm windows had not been taken down-not, at least, those he had put up last fall at the back of the house.

  He moved into the passageway. Luckily the neighbors were not at home, and he did not have to worry about their lights. He had had his look at Madeleine. It was his daughter he wanted to see now. The dining room was unoccupied-after-dinner emptiness, Coke bottles, paper napkins.

  Next was the bathroom window, set higher than the rest. He remembered, however, that he had used a cement block to stand on, trying to take out the bathroom screen until he had discovered there was no storm window to replace it. The screen was still in, therefore. And the block? It was exactly where he had left it, among the lilies of the valley on the left side of the path. He moved it into place, the scraping covered by the sound of water in the tub, and stood on it, his side pressed to the building. He tried to muffle the sound of his breathing, opening his mouth.

  In the rushing water with floating toys his daughter's little body shone. His child! Madeleine had let her black hair grow longer, and now it was tied up for the bath with a rubber band. He melted with tenderness for her, putting his hand over his mouth to cover any sound emotion might cause him to make. She raised her face to speak to someone he could not see. Above the flow of water he heard her say something but could not understand the words. Her face was the Herzog face, the large dark eyes his eyes, the nose his father's, Tante Zipporah's, his brother Willie's nose, and the mouth his own.

  Even the bit of melancholy in her beauty-that was his mother. It was Sarah Herzog, pensive, slightly averting her face as she considered the life about her. Moved, he watched her, breathing with open mouth, his face half covered by his hand. Flying beetles passed him. Their heavy bodies struck the screen but did not attract her notice.

  Then a hand reached forward and shut off the water-a man's hand. It was Gersbach. He was going to bathe Herzog's daughter! Gersbach! His waist was now in sight. He came into view stalking beside the old-fashioned round tub, bowing, straightening, bowing-his Venetian hobble, and then, with great trouble, he began to kneel, and Herzog saw his chest, his head, as he arranged himself. Flattened to the wall, his chin on his shoulder, Herzog saw Gersbach roll up the sleeves of his paisley sports shirt, put back his thick glowing hair, take the soap, heard him say, not unkindly, "Okay, cut out the monkeyshines," for Junie was giggling, twisting, splashing, dimpling, showing her tiny white teeth, wrinkling her nose, teasing. "Now hold still," said Gersbach. He got into her ears with the washrag as she screamed, cleaned off her face, the nostrils, wiped her mouth. He spoke with authority, but affectionately and with grumbling smiles and occasionally with laughter he bathed her-soaped, rinsed, dipping water in her toy boats to rinse her back as she squealed and twisted. The man washed her tenderly. His look, perhaps, was false. But he had no true expressions, Herzog thought. His face was all heaviness, sexual meat. Looking down his open shirt front, Herzog saw the hair-covered heavy soft flesh of Gersbach's breast. His chin was thick, and like a stone ax, a brutal weapon. And then there were his sentimental eyes, the thick crest of hair, and that hearty voice with its peculiar fraudulence and grossness. The hated traits were all there. But see how he was with June, scooping the water on her playfully, kindly. He let her wear her mother's flowered shower cap, the rubber petals spreading on the child's head. Then Gersbach ordered her to stand, and she stooped slightly to allow him to wash her little cleft. Her father stared at this. A pang went through him, but it was quickly done. She sat again. Gersbach ran fresh water on her, cumbersomely rose and opened the bath towel. Steady and thorough, he dried her, and then with a large puff he powdered her. The child jumped up and down with delight. "Enough of this wild stuff," said Gersbach. "Put on those p-j's now."

  She ran out. Herzog still saw faint wisps of powder that floated over Gersbach's stooping head.

  His red hair worked up and down. He was scouring the tub. Moses might have killed him now. His left hand touched the gun, enclosed in the roll of rubles.

  He might have shot Gersbach as he methodically salted the yellow sponge rectangle with cleansing powder. There were two bullets in the chamber.... But they would stay there. Herzog clearly recognized that.

  Very softly he stepped down from his perch, and passed without sound through the yard again. He saw his child in the kitchen, looking up at Mady, asking for something, and he edged through the gate into the alley. Firing this pistol was nothing but a thought.

  The human soul is an amphibian, and I have touched its sides.

  Amphibian! It lives in more elements than I will ever know; and I assume that in those remote stars matter is in the making which will create stranger beings yet. I seem to think because June looks like a Herzog, she is nearer to me than to them. But how is she near to me if I have no share in her life? Those two grotesque love-actors have it all. And I apparently believe that if the child does not have a life resembling mine, educated according to the Herzog standards of "heart," and all the rest of it, she will fail to become a human being. This is sheer irrationality, and yet some part of my mind takes it as self-evident. But what in fact can she learn from them? From Gersbach, when he looks so sugary, repulsive, poisonous, not an individual but a fragment, a piece broken off from the mob. To shoot him!-an absurd thought. As soon as Herzog saw the actual person giving an actual bath, the reality of it, the tenderness of such a buffoon to a little child, his intended violence turned into theater, into something ludicrous. He was not ready to make such a complete fool of himself. Only self-hatred could lead him to ruin himself because his heart was "broken." How could it be broken by such a pair! Lingering in the alley awhile, he congratulated himself on his hick. His breath came back to him; and how good it felt to breathe! It was worth the trip.

  Think! he noted to himself in the Falcon, on a pad under the map light.

  Demographers estimate that at least half of all the human beings ever born are alive now, in this century. What a moment for the human soul!

  Characteristics drawn from the genetic pool have, in statistical probability, reconstituted all the best and all the worst of human life. It's all around us. Buddha and Lao-tse must be walking the earth somewhere. And Tiberius and Nero. Everything horrible, everything sublime, and things not imagined yet. And you, part-time visionary, cheerful, tragical mammal. You and your children and children's children... In ancient days, the genius of man went largely into metaphors. But now into facts...

  Francis Bacon. Instruments.

  Then with inexpressible relish he adde
d, Tante Zipporah told Papa he could never use a gun on anyone, never keep up with teamsters, butchers, sluggers, hooligans, razboiniks. "A gilded little gentleman." Could he hit anyone on the head? Could he shoot?

  Moses could confidently swear that Father Herzog had never-not once in his life-pulled the trigger of this gun. Only threatened. As he threatened me with it.

  Taube defended me then. She "saved" me. Dear Aunt Taube! A cold forge! Poor Father Herzog!

  But he was not yet willing to call it a day. He had to have a talk with Phoebe Gersbach. It was essential. And he decided not to phone her and give her an opportunity to prepare herself, or even refuse to see him. He drove directly to Woodlawn Avenue-a dreary part of Hyde Park, but characteristic, his Chicago: massive, clumsy, amorphous, smelling of mud and decay, dog turds; sooty facades, slabs of structural nothing, senselessly ornamented triple porches with huge cement urns for flowers that contained only rotting cigarette butts and other stained filth; sun parlors under tiled gables, rank areaways, gray backstairs, seamed and ruptured concrete from which sprang grass; ponderous four-by-four fences that sheltered growing weeds. And among these spacious, comfortable, dowdy apartments where liberal, benevolent people lived (this was the university neighborhood) Herzog did in fact feel at home. He was perhaps as midwestern and unfocused as these same streets.

  (not so much determinism, he thought, as a lack of determining elements-the absence of a formative power.)

  But it was all typical, and nothing was lacking, not even the sound of roller skates awkwardly gritting on the pavement beneath new summer leaves. Two poky little girls under the green transparency of street lamps, skating in short skirts, and with ribbons in their hair.

  A nervous qualm went through him now that he was at Gersbach's gate, but he mastered it and went up the walk, rang the bell. Phoebe approached quickly. She called, "Who is it?" and seeing Herzog through the glass was silent. Was she scared?

  "It's an old friend," said Herzog. A moment passed, Phoebe, despite the firmness of her mouth, hesitating, eyes large-lidded beneath her bangs. "Won't you let me in?" Moses asked. His tone made refusal unthinkable. "I won't take much of your time," he said as he was entering. "We do have a few matters to discuss, though."

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