Herzog by Saul Bellow


  Lighted from the south the water was a marvelous, fresh heavy daylight blue; the sky rested on the mild burning horizon, clear except toward Gary, where the dark thin pillars of the steel hearths purled out russet and sulphur streams of smoke. By now the lawns at Ludeyville, uncut for two years, must be simply hayfields, and local hunters and lovers were breaking in again, most likely, shattering windows, lighting fires.

  "I want to go to the aquarium, Papa," said June. "Mama said you should take me."

  "Oh, did she? Well, come on then." The Falcon had grown hot in the sun. He opened the windows to cool it. He had an extraordinary number of keys, by now, and must organize them better in his pockets. There were his New York house keys, the key Ramona had given him, the Faculty Men's Lounge key from the university, and the key to Asphalter's apartment, as well as several Ludeyville keys. "You must sit in the back seat, honey. Creep in, now, and pull down your dress because the plastic is very hot."

  The air from the west was drier than the east air.

  Herzog's sharp senses detected the difference. In these days of near-delirium and wide-ranging disordered thought, deeper currents of feeling had heightened his perceptions, or made him instill something of his own into his surroundings. As though he painted them with moisture and color taken from his own mouth, his blood, liver, bowels, genitals. In this mingled way, therefore, he was aware of Chicago, familiar ground to him for more than thirty years. And out of its elements, by this peculiar art of his own organs, he created his version of it. Where the thick walls and buckled slabs of pavement in the Negro slums exhaled their bad smells. Farther west, the industries; the sluggish South Branch dense with sewage and glittering with a crust of golden slime; the Stockyards, deserted; the tall red slaughterhouses in lonely decay; and then a faintly buzzing dullness of bungalows and scrawny parks; and vast shopping centers; and the cemeteries after these-Waldheim, with its graves for Herzogs past and present; the Forest Preserves for riding parties, Croatian picnics, lovers" lanes, horrible murders; airports; quarries; and, last of all, cornfields. And with this, infinite forms of activity-Reality. Moses had to see reality.

  Perhaps he was somewhat spared from it so that he might see it better, not fall asleep in its thick embrace. Awareness was his work; extended consciousness was his line, his business. Vigilance. If he borrowed time to take his tiny daughter to see the fishes he would find a way to make it up to the vigilance-fund. This day was just like-he braced himself and faced it- like the day of Father Herzog's funeral.

  Then, too, it was flowering weather-roses, magnolias. Moses, the night before, had cried, slept, the air was wickedly perfumed; he had had luxuriant dreams, painful, evil, and rich, interrupted by the rare ecstasy of nocturnal emission-how death dangles freedom before the enslaved instincts: the pitiful sons of Adam whose minds and bodies must answer strange signals.

  Much of my life has been spent in the effort to live by more coherent ideas. I even know which ones.

  "Papa, you must turn here. This is where Uncle Val always turns."

  "Okay." He observed in the mirror that the slip had distressed her. She had mentioned Gersbach again.

  "Hey, Pussycat," he said. "If you say anything about Uncle Val to me, I'll never tell. I'll never ask you any questions about him. Now don't you ever worry about it. It's all silliness."

  He had been no older than June when Mother Herzog instructed him to say nothing about that still in Verdun. He remembered the contraption well. Those pipes were beautiful. And the reeking mash. If he was not mistaken, Father Herzog emptied sacks of stale rye bread into the vat. In any case, secrets were not too bad.

  "There's nothing wrong with a few secrets," he said.

  "I know lots of them." She stood directly behind him in the back seat and stroked his head. "Uncle Val is very nice."

  "Why of course he is."

  "But I don't like him. He doesn't smell good."

  "Ha, ha! Well, we'll get him a bottle of perfume and make him smell terrific."

  He held her hand as they mounted the aquarium staircase, feeling himself to be the father whose strength and calm judgment she could trust. The center court of the building, whitened by the skylight, was very warm. The splashing pool and luxuriant plants and soft tropical fishy air forced Moses to take a grip on himself, to keep up his energy.

  "What do you want to see first?"

  "The big turtles."

  They went up and down the obscure gold and green alleys.

  "This fast little fish is called the humuhumuu-elee-elee, from Hawaii. This slithering beast is the sting ray and has teeth and venom in its tail. And these are lampreys, related to hagfish, they fasten then-sucker mouths on other fish and drink until they kill them. Over there you see the rainbow fish. No turtles in this aisle, but look at those great things at the end. Sharks?"

  "I saw the dolphins at Brookfield," said June. "They wear sailor hats, ring a bell.

  They can dance on their tails and play basketball."

  Herzog picked her up and carried her. These children's outings, perhaps because they were pervaded with so much emotion, were always exhausting. Often, after a day with Marco, Moses had to put a cold compress on his eyes and lie down. It seemed his fate to be the visiting father, an apparition who faded in and out of the children's lives. But this peculiar sensitivity about meeting and parting had to be tamed. Such trembling sorrow-he tried to think what term Freud had for it: partial return of repressed traumatic material, ultimately traceable to the death instinct? comshd not be imparted to children, not that tremulous lifelong swoon of death. This same emotion, as Herzog the student was aware, was held to the womb of cities, heavenly as well as earthly, mankind being unable to part with its beloved or its dead in this world or the next. But to Moses E. Herzog as he held his daughter in his arms, looking through aqueous green at the hagfish and smooth sharks with their fanged bellies, this emotion was nothing but tyranny. For the first time he took a different view of the way in which Alexander V. Herzog had run Father Herzog's funeral. No solemnity in the chapel.

  Shura's portly, golf-tanned friends, bankers and corporation presidents, forming an imposing wall of meat as heavy in the shoulders, hands, and cheeks as they were thin in the hair. Then there was the cortege. City Hall had sent a motorcycle escort in recognition of Shura Herzog's civic importance. The cops ran ahead with screaming sirens, booting cars and trucks aside so that the hearse could speed through lights. No one ever got to Waldheim so fast. Moses said to Shura, "While he lived, Papa had the cops at his back. Now..." Helen, Willie, all four children in the limousine, laughed softly at this remark.

  Then as the coffin was lowered and Moses and the others wept, Shura said to him, "Don't carry on like a goddamn immigrant." I embarrassed him with his golfing friends, the corporation presidents. Maybe I was not entirely in the right. Here he was the good American. I still carry European pollution, am infected by the Old World with feelings like Love-Filial Emotion. Old stuporous dreams.

  "There is the turtle!" June shouted. The thing rose from the depths of the tank in its horny breastplate, the beaked head lazy, the eyes with aeons of indifference, the flippers slowly striving, pushing at the glass, the great scales pinkish yellow or, on the back, bearing beautiful lines, black curved plates mimicking the surface tension of water. It trailed a fuzz of parasitic green.

  For comparison they went back to the Mississippi River turtles in the pool at the center; their sides were red-straked; they dozed on their logs and paddled in company with catfish over a bottom shaded by ferns, strewn with pennies.

  The child had now had enough, and so had her father. "I think we'll go and get you a sandwich. It's lunchtime," he said.

  They left the parking lot carefully enough, Herzog later thought. He was a circumspect driver. But getting his Falcon into the main stream of traffic he should perhaps have reckoned with the long curve from the north on which the cars picked up speed. A little Volkswagen truck was on his tail. He touched the brakes, meanin
g to slow up and let the other driver pass. But the brakes were all too new and responsive. The Falcon stopped short and the small truck struck it from behind and rammed it into a utilities pole. June screamed and clutched at his shoulders as he was thrown forward, against the steering wheel. The kid! he thought; but it was not the kid he had to worry about. He knew from her scream that she was not hurt, only frightened. He lay over the wheel, feeling weak, radically weak; his eyes grew dark; he felt that he was losing ground to nausea and numbness. He listened to June's screams but could not turn to her. He notified himself that he was passing out, and he fainted away.

  They spread him out on the grass. He heard a locomotive very close-the Illinois Central.

  And then it seemed somewhat farther off, blundering in the weeds across the Drive. His vision at first was bothered by large blots, but these dwindled presently to iridescent specks. His pants had worked themselves up. He felt a chill in his legs.

  "Where's June? Where's my daughter?" He raised himself and saw her between two Negro policemen, looking at him. They had his wallet, the Czarist rubles, and the pistol, of course. There it was. He closed his eyes again. He felt the nausea return as he considered what he had gotten himself into. "Is she all right?"

  "She's okay."

  "Come here, Junie." He leaned forward and she walked into his arms. As he felt her, kissed her scared face, he had a sharp pain in his ribs.

  "Papa lay down for a minute. It's nothing." But she had seen him lying on this grass. Just past the new building beyond the Museum. Stretched limp, looking dead, probably, while the cops went through his pockets. His face felt bloodless, hollow, stiff, its sensations intensely reduced, and this frightened him. From the pricking of his hair at the roots he thought it must be turning white all at once. The police were giving him a few minutes to come to himself. The blue light of the squad car flashed, revolving. The driver of the small truck was staring at him, angry. A little beyond, the grackles were walking, feeding, the usual circle of lights working flexibly back and forth about their black necks. Over his shoulder Herzog was aware of the Field Museum. If only I were a mummy in that cellar! he thought.

  The cops had him. Their silent looks gave him this information. Because he was holding Junie they waited; they might not be too rough with him just yet. Already stalling for time, he acted more dazed than he really felt. The cops could be very bad, he had seen them at work. But that was in the old days. Perhaps times had changed. There was a new Commissioner. He had sat close to Orlando Wilson at a Narcotics Conference last year. They had shaken hands. Of course it wasn't worth mentioning; anyway, nothing would antagonize these two big Negro cops more than hints of influence. For them, he was part of today's haul, and with his rubles, the gun, he couldn't hope that they would simply let him go. And there was the teal-blue Falcon crumpled against the utilities pole. The traffic rushing by, the road with its blazing cars.

  "You Moses?" the older of the two Negroes asked. There it was-that note of deadly familiarity that you heard only when immunity was lost.

  "Yes, I'm Moses."

  "This your chile?"

  "Yes-my little girl."

  "You better put your handkercher to your head. You got a little cut, Moses."

  "Is that so?" This explained the pricking under his hair. Unable to locate his handkerchief-the scrap of towel-he unknotted his silk tie and folded it, pressed the broad end to his scalp. "Nothing to it," he said. The child had hidden her head in his shoulder. "Sit down by Papa, sweetheart. Sit on the grass right next to me. Papa's head hurts a little." She obeyed. Her docility, her feeling for him, what seemed to him the wise, tender sense of the child, her sympathy, moved him, pressed his guts. He put a protective, wide, eager hand on her back. Sitting forward, he held the tie to his scalp.

  "You got the permit for this gun, Moses?" The cop pursed his large lips as he waited for the answer, brushing the small bristles of his mustache upward with his fingernail. The other policeman spoke with the driver of the Volkswagen truck, who was wildly angry. Sharp-faced, his nose sharp and red, he was glaring at Moses, saying, "You're going to take that guy's license away, aren't you?"

  Moses thought, I'm in bad because of the pistol, and this fellow wants to pour it on. Warned by this indignation, Herzog held his own feelings in.

  "I asked you once, I ask you again, Moses, you got a permit?"

  "No sir, I haven't."

  "Two bullets in here. Loaded weapon, Moses."

  "Officer, it was my father's gun. He died, and I was taking it back to Massachusetts." His answers were as brief and patient as he could make them. He knew he would have to repeat his story, over and over.

  "What's this money here?"

  "Worthless, officer. Like Russian Confederate money. Stage money. Another souvenir."

  Not devoid of sympathy, the policeman's face also expressed a fatigued skepticism. He was heavy-lidded, and on his silent, thick mouth there was a sort of smile. Sono's lips had looked a little like this when she questioned him about the other women in his life.

  Well-the variety of oddities, alibis, inventions, fantasies the police ran into every day ... Herzog, making his reckonings as intelligently as he could, though he had a heavy weight of responsibility and dread inside him, believed it might not be so easy for this cop to type him. There were labels to fit him, naturally, but a harness cop like this would not be familiar with them. Even now there was possibly some tinge of pride in this reflection, so tenacious was human foolishness.

  "Lord, let the angels praise thy name. Man is a foolish thing, a foolish thing. Folly and sin play all his game...." Herzog's head ached and he could remember no more verses. He lifted the tie from his scalp. No sense in letting it stick; it would pull away the clot. June had put her head in his lap. He covered her eyes from the sun.

  "We have to diagram this accident." The copper in his shiny pants squatted beside Herzog. From his fat, bulging hips his own gun hung low. Its brown butt of cross-hatched metal and the cartridge belt looked very different from Father Herzog's big, clumsy Cherry Street revolver. "I don't see the title of this Falcon, here."

  The small car was staved in at both ends, the hood gaping like a mussel shell. The engine itself could not be damaged much; no fluids had trickled out. "It's rented. I picked it up at O'Hare. The papers are in the glove compartment," said Herzog.

  "We got to get these facts, here." The policeman opened a folder and began to mark the thick paper of a printed form with his yellow pencil.

  "You come out of this parking lot-what speed?"

  "I was creeping. Five, eight miles an hour-I just nosed out."

  "You didn't see this fellow coming?"

  "No. The curve was hiding him, I suppose. I don't know. But he was right on my bumper when I got into the lane." He bent forward, trying to change his position and ease the pain in his side. He had already arranged with his mind to disregard it. He stroked June's cheek. "At least she wasn't hurt," he said.

  "I just lifted her out the back window. The door got jammed. I looked her over. She's okay."

  The mustached Negro frowned, as if to make plain that he did not owe Herzog-a man with a loaded gun- any explanations whatever. For it was the possession of this clumsy horse pistol with two cartridges, not the accident, that would be the main charge against him.

  "I'd have blown my brains out if anything happened to her."

  The squatting cop, to judge by his silence, had no concern with what Moses might have done. To speak of any use of the revolver, even against himself, was not very smart. But he was still somewhat stunned and dizzy, brought down, as he pictured it, from his strange, spiraling flight of the last few days; and the shock, not to say desperation, of this sudden drop. His head still swam. He decided that this foolishness must stop, or things would go even worse. Running to protect his daughter, he almost killed her. Coming to offset the influence of Gersbach, and to give her the benefit of his own self-man and father, et cetera-what did he do but bang into a pole. A
nd then the child saw him dragged out fainting, cut on the head, the revolver and the rubles sliding from his pocket. No, weakness, or sickness, with which he had copped a plea all his life (alternating with arrogance), his method of preserving equilibrium-the Herzog gyroscope-had no further utility. He seemed to have come to the end of that.

  The driver of the Volkswagen utilities truck, in a green jumper, was giving his account of the accident.

  Moses tried to make out the letters stitched in yellow thread over his pocket. Was he from the gas company?

  No telling. He was laying the whole guilt on him, of course. It was very inventive-creative. The story deepened every moment. Oh, the grandeur of self-justification, thought Herzog. What genius it brought out in these mortals, even the most red-nosed.

  The ripples in this fellow's scalp followed a different pattern from the furrows in his forehead. You could make out his former hairline by this means. A certain number of skimpy hairs remained.

  "He just cut out in front of me. No signal, nothing. Whyn't you give him the drunk test? That's drunken driving."

  "Well, now, Harold," the older Negro said.

  "What was your speed?"

  "Why, Jesus! I was way below the limit."

  "A lot of these company drivers like to give private cars the business," said Herzog.

 
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