Herzog by Saul Bellow


  He built a fire and heated a pan of water, lathered his cheeks with brown laundry soap.

  Clean-shaven, he was extremely pale. His face had become much thinner, too. He had just put down his razor when he heard the smooth noise of an engine at the foot of the drive. He ran into the garden to meet his brother.

  Will was alone in his Cadillac. The great car got up the hill slowly, scraping its underbelly on rocks and bending the tall growth of weeds and canes.

  Will was a masterful driver. He might be short but there was nothing timid about him, and as for the beautiful Italian Plum finish of the Cadillac he was not the sort of man to fret about a few scratches.

  On level ground, under the elm, the car stood idling. Two Chinese fangs of vapor came from the rear, and William got out, his face lined in the sun. He took in the house, Moses approaching eagerly.

  What must Will feel? Moses wondered. He must be appalled. What else could he be?

  "Will! How are you?" He embraced his brother.

  "How are you, Moses. Are you feeling all right?" Will might act as conservative as he pleased. He could never conceal his real emotions from his brother.

  "I just shaved. I always look white after shaving, but I feel well. Honest, I do."

  "You've lost weight. Maybe ten pounds, since you left Chicago. It's too much," said W.

  "How's your rib?"

  "Doesn't bother me a bit."

  "And the head?"

  "Fine. I've been resting. Where's Muriel? I thought she was coming, too."

  "She took the plane. I'm going to meet her in Boston."

  Will had learned to conduct himself with restraint. A Herzog, he had a good deal to hold down. Moses could remember a time when Willie, too, had been demonstrative, passionate, explosive, given to bursts of rage, flinging objects on the ground.

  Just a moment-what was it, now, that he had thrown down?

  A brush! That was it! The broad old Russian shoe brush. Will slammed it to the floor so hard the veneer backing fell off, and beneath were the stitches, ancient waxed thread, maybe even sinew. But that was long ago. Thirty-five years ago, easily. And where had it gone, the wrath of Willie Herzog? my dear brother? Into a certain poise and quiet humor, part decorousness, part (possibly) slavery. The explosions had become implosions, and where light once was darkness came, bit by bit. It didn't matter. The sight of Will stirred Moses' love for him. Will looked tired and wrinkled; he had been on the road a long time, he needed something to eat, and a rest. He had taken this long trip because he was concerned about him, Moses. And how considerate of him not to bring Muriel.

  "How was the drive, Will? Are you hungry? Shall I open a can of tuna?"

  "You're the one that doesn't seem to have eaten. I had something on the road."

  "Well, come, sit down a while." He led him toward the lawn chairs. "It was lovely here when I took care of the grounds."

  "So this is the house? No, I don't want to sit, thanks. I'd rather move around. Let's see it."

  "Yes, this is the famous house, the house of happiness," said Moses, but he added, "As a matter of fact, I have been happy here. None of this ingratitude."

  "It seems well built."

  "From a builder's viewpoint it's terrific.

  Imagine what it would cost today. The foundations would hold the Empire State Building. And I'll show you the hand-hewn chestnut beams. Old mortise and tenon. No metal at all."

  "It must be hard to heat."

  "Not so hard. Electric baseboards."

  "I wish I were selling you the current. Make a fortune... But it is a beautiful spot, I'll give you that. These trees are fine. How many acres have you got?"

  "Forty. But surrounded by abandoned farms. Not a neighbor in two miles."

  "Oh... Is that good?"

  "Very private, I mean."

  "What are your taxes?"

  "One-eighty-six or so. Never over one-ninety."

  "And the mortgage?"

  "There's only a small principal. Payments and interest are two hundred and fifty a year."

  "Very good," said Will approvingly. "But now tell me, how much money have you put into this place, Mose?"

  "I've never totaled it up. Twenty grand, I guess. More than half of it in improvements."

  Will nodded. His arms crossed, he gazed upward at the structure with his partly averted face-he too had this hereditary peculiarity. Only his eyes were quietly and firmly shrewd, not dreaming. Moses, however, saw without the slightest difficulty what Will was thinking.

  He expressed it to himself in Yiddish.

  In drerd aufn deck. The edge of nowhere. Out on the lid of Hell.

  "In itself, it's a fine-looking piece of property. It may turn out to be a pretty reasonable investment at that. Of course, the location is a bit peculiar. Ludeyville isn't on the map."

  "No, not on the Esso map," Moses conceded.

  "The state of Massachusetts knows where it is, naturally."

  Both brothers smiled slightly, without looking at each other.

  "Let's look over the interior," said W.

  Moses gave him a tour of the house, beginning in the kitchen. "It needs an airing."

  "It is a bit musty. But handsome. The plaster is in excellent condition."

  "You need a cat to police the field mice. They winter in here. I'm fond of them but they chew everything. Even book bindings. They seem to love glue. And wax. Paraffin. Candles. Anything like that."

  Will showed him great politeness. He did not confront him harshly with fundamentals, as Shura would have done.

  There was a certain sweet decency in W. Helen had it, too. Shura would have said, "What a jerk you were to sink so much dough into this old barn." Well, that was simply Shura's way. Moses loved them all, notwithstanding.

  "And the water supply?" said W.

  "Gravity-fed, from the spring. We have two old wells, too. One of them was ruined by kerosene.

  Someone let a whole tankful of kerosene leak out and soak down. But it doesn't matter. The water supply is excellent. The cesspool is well built.

  Could accommodate twenty people. You wouldn't need orange trees."

  "Meaning what?"

  "It means that at Versailles Louis Quatorze planted oranges because the excrement of the court made the air foul."

  "How nice to have an education," said W.

  "To be pedantic, you mean," said Herzog. He spoke with a great deal of caution, taking special pains to give an impression of completest normalcy. That Will was studying him-Will who had become the most discreet and observant of the Herzogs-was transparently plain. Moses thought he could bear his scrutiny fairly well. His haggard, just-shaven cheeks were against him; as was the whole house (the skeletons in the toilet bowl, the owls in the fixtures, the half-painted piano, the remains of meals, the wife-deserted atmosphere); his "inspired" visit to Chicago was bad, too. Very bad. It must be noticeable, also, that he was in an extraordinary state, eyes dilated with excitement, the very speed of his pulses possibly visible in his large irises.

  Why must I be such a throb-hearted character... But I am. I am, and you can't teach old dogs. Myself is thus and so, and will continue thus and so. And why fight it? My balance comes from instability. Not organization, or courage, as with other people.

  It's tough, but that's how it is. On these terms I, too - even I!

  - apprehend certain things. Perhaps the only way I'm able to do it. Must play the instrument I've got.

  "You've been painting this piano, I see."

  "For June," said Herzog. "A present. A surprise."

  "What?" Will laughed. "Are you planning to send it from here? Why it'll cost two hundred bucks in freight. And it would have to be fixed up, tuned. Is it such a great piano?"

  "Madeleine bought it at auction for twenty-five bucks."

  "Take my word for it, Moses, you can buy a nice old piano right in Chicago, at a warehouse sale. Lots of old; instruments like this, kicking around."

  "Yes...? Only I like this colo
r." This apple, parrot green, the special Ludeyville color. Moses' eyes were fixed upon his work with a certain inspired persistency. He was near a point of open impulsiveness, and some peculiarity might now dart forth. He couldn't allow that to happen.

  Under no circumstances must he utter a single word that might be interpreted as irrational. Things already looked bad enough. He glanced away from the piano into the clear shade of the garden, and tried to become as clear as that.

  He deferred to his brother's opinion. "Okay.

  Next trip, I'll get her a piano."

  "What you've got here is an excellent summer house," said W. "A little lonely, but nice. If you can clean it up."

  "It can be lovely here. But you know, we might make it a Herzog summer resort. For the family.

  Everyone put in a little money. Cut the brush.

  Build a swimming pool."

  "Oh, sure. Helen hates travel, you know that.

  And Shura is just the man to come up here where there are no race horses, or card games, or other tycoons, or broads."

  "There are trotter races at the Barrington Fair.... No, I guess that's not such a good idea, either. Well, perhaps we could make it into a nursing home. Or move it to another location."

  "Not worth it. I've seen mansions wrecked for slum clearance or for new superhighways. This isn't worth dismantling. Can't you rent it out?"

  Herzog silently grinned, staring with piercing humor at W.

  "All right, Mose, the only other suggestion is that you put it up for sale. You won't get your money out of it."

  "I could go to work and become rich. Make a ton of money, just to keep this house."

  "Yes," said W. "You might." He spoke gently to his brother.

  "Odd situation I've gotten into, Will-isn't it?" said Moses. "For me. For us-the Herzogs, I mean. It seems a strange point to arrive at after all the other points. In this lovely green hole.. You're worried about me, I see."

  Will, troubled but controlled, one of the most deeply familiar and longest-loved of human faces, looked at him in a way that could not be mistaken.

  "Of course I'm worried. Helen too."

  "Well, you mustn't be distressed about me. I'm in a peculiar state, but not in a bad one. I'd open my heart to you, Will, if I could find the knob.

  There's no reason to be upset about me.

  By God, Will, I'm about to cry! How did that happen? I won't do it. It's only love. Or something that bears down like love. It probably is love. I'm in no shape to buck it. I don't want you to think anything wrong."

  "Mose-why should I?" Will spoke in a low voice.

  "I have something deep-in for you, too. I feel about the way you do. Just because I'm a contractor doesn't mean I can't understand what you mean. I didn't come to do you harm, you know. That's right, Mose, take a chair. You look out on your feet."

  Moses sat on the old sofa, which gave off dust as soon as you touched it.

  "I'd like to see you less agitated. You must get some food and sleep. Probably a little medical care. A few days in the hospital, taking it easy."

  "Will, I'm excited, not sick. I don't want to be treated as though I were sick in the head. I'm grateful that you came." Silently and stubbornly he sat, persisting, putting down his violent, choking craving for tears. His voice was dim.

  "Take your time," said W.

  "I..." Herzog found his voice again and said distinctly, "I want to be straight about one thing. I'm not turning myself over to you out of weakness, or because I can't make my own way. I don't mind taking it easy in some hospital for a few days.

  If you and' Helen decided that that was what I should do, I see no objection. Clean sheets and a bath and some hot food. Sleep. That's all pleasant.

  But only a few days. I have to visit Marco at camp on the sixteenth. That's Parents' Day and he's expecting me."

  "Fair enough," said W. "That's no more than right."

  "Only a while back, in New York, I had fantasies about being put in the hospital."

  "You were only being sensible," said his brother. "What you need is supervised rest. I've thought about it, too, for myself. Once in a while, we all get that way. Now"-he looked at his watch-"I asked my physician to phone a local hospital. In Pittsfield."

  As soon as Will had spoken, Moses sat forward on the sofa. He could not find words. He only made a negative sign with his head. At this, Will's face changed, too. He seemed to think he had pronounced the word hospital too abruptly, that he ought to have been more gradual, circumspect.

  "No," said Moses, still shaking his head. "No.

  Definitely."

  Now Will was silent, still with the pained air of a man who had made a tactical error. Moses could easily imagine what Will had said to Helen, after he had bailed him out, and what a worried consultation they had had about him. ("What shall we do? Poor Mose-maybe it's all driven him mad. Let's at least get a professional opinion about him.")

  Helen was great on professional opinions. The veneration with which she said "professional opinion" had always amused Moses. And so they had approached Will's internist to ask if he would, discreetly, arrange something in the Berkshire area. "But I thought we already agreed," said W.

  "No, W. No hospitals. I know you and Helen are doing what brother and sister should. And I'm tempted to go along. To a man like me, it's a seductive idea. "Supervised rest."

  "And why not? If I'd found some improvement in you I might not have brought it up," said W. "But look at you."

  "I know," said Moses. "But just as I begin to be a little rational you want to hand me over to a psychiatrist. It was a psychiatrist you and Helen had in mind, wasn't it?"

  Will was silent, taking counsel with himself. Then he sighed and said, "What harm could there be in it?"

  "Was it any more fantastic for me to have these wives, children, to move to a place like this than for Papa to have been a bootlegger? We never thought he was mad."

  Moses began to smile. "... Do you remember, Will-he had those phony labels printed up: White Horse, Johnnie Walker, Haig and Haig, and we'd sit at the table with the paste-pot, and he'd flash those labels and say, "Well, children, what should we make today?"', and we'd start to cry out and squeak "White Horse,"

  "Teacher's." And the coal stove was hot. It dropped embers like red teeth in the ash. He had those dark green lovely bottles. They don't make glass like that, in those shapes, any more. My favorite was White Horse."

  Will laughed softly.

  "Going to the hospital would be fine," said Herzog.

  "But it would be just the wrong thing to do. It's about time I stopped laboring with this curse-I think, I figure things out. I see exactly what I should avoid. Then, all of a sudden, I'm in bed with that very thing, and making love to it. As with Madeleine. She seems to have filled a special need."

  "How do you figure that, Moses?" Will joined him on the sofa, and sat beside him.

  "A very special need. I don't know what. She brought ideology into my life. Something to do with catastrophe. After all, it's an ideological age. Maybe she wouldn't make a father of anyone she liked."

  Will smiled at Moses' way of putting it. "But what do you intend to do here now?"

  "I may as well stay on. I'm not far from Marco's camp. Yes, that's it. If Daisy'll let me, I'll bring him here next month. What I'll do is this, if you'll drive me and my bike into Ludeyville, I'll have the lights and the phone turned on. Tuttle'll come up and mow the place.

  Maybe Mrs. Tuttle will clean up for me.

  That's what I'll do." He stood up. "I'll get the water running again, and buy some solid food. Come, Will, give me a lift down to Turtle's."

  "Who is this Tuttle?"

  "He runs everything. He's the master spirit of Ludeyville. A tall fellow. He's shy, to look at, but that's only more of his shrewdness.

  He's the demon of these woods. He can have the lights burning here within an hour. He knows all.

  He overcharges, but very, very shyly."

  Tuttle was sta
nding beside his high, lean, antiquated gas pumps when Will drove up. Thin, wrinkled, the hairs on his corded forearms bleached meal-white, he wore a cotton paint cap and between his false teeth (to help him kick the smoking habit, as he had once explained to Herzog) he kept a plastic toothpick. "I knew you was up in the place, Mr. Herzog," he said. "Welcome back."

  "How did you know?"

  "I saw the smoke onto your chimney, that's the first of all."

  "Yes? And what's the second?"

  "Why, a lady's been tryin' to get you on the telephone."

  "Who?" said W.

  "A party in Barrington. She left the number."

  "Only her number?" said Herzog. "No name?"

  "Miss Harmona, or Armona."

  "Ramona," said Herzog. "Is she in Barrington?"

  "Were you expecting someone?" Will turned to him in the seat.

  "No one but you."

  Will insisted on knowing more. "Who is she?"

  Somewhat unwillingly, and with an evasive look, Moses answered, "A lady-a woman." Then, putting off his reticence-why, after all, should he be nervous about it?-he added, "A woman, a florist, a friend from New York."

  "Are you going to return her call?"

  "Yes, of course." He observed the white listening face of Mrs. Tuttle in the dark store. "I wonder," he said to Tuttle. "... I want to open the house. I have to get the current on.

  Maybe Mrs. Tuttle will help me clean the place a bit."

  "Oh, I think she might."

  Mrs. Tuttle wore tennis shoes and, under her dress, the edge of her nightgown showed. Her polished fingernails were tobacco-stained. She had gained much weight in Herzog's absence, and he noted the distortion of her pretty face, the heaviness of her neglected dark hair and the odd distant look in her gray eyes, as if the fat of her body had an opiate effect on her. He knew that she had monitored his conversations with Madeleine on the party line. Probably she had heard all the shameful, terrible things that had been said, listened to the rant and the sobbing. Now he was about to invite her to come to work, to sweep the floors, make his bed. She reached for a filter cigarette, lit it like a man, stared through smoke with tranced gray eyes and said, "Why, I think so, yes. It's my day off from the mortel. I been working as a chambermaid over in the new mortel on the highway."

 
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