Monday, September 18, 2017

ET: Almanac

Emil was driving more steadily again, below Seventy-second Street. The traffic had eased. There were no truck deliveries to impede it. Lincoln Center was approaching and, at Columbus Circle, the Huntington Hartford Building, which Bruch called the Taj Mahole. Wasn't that funny! said Bruch. At his own jokes he rolled with laughter. Ape-like, he put his hands on his paunch and closed his eyes, letting the tongue hang out of his blind head. What a building! All holes. But that was some lunch they put down only for three bucks. He raved about the bill of fare-- Hawaiian chicken and saffron rice. Finally he had taken the old man there. It was indeed a grand lunch. But Lincoln Center Sammler had seen only from the outside. He was cold to the performing arts, and shunned large crowds. Exhibitions, electrical or nude, he had attended only because it amused Angela to keep him up to date. But he passed by the pages of the Times that dealt with painters, singers, fiddlers, or play actors. He saved his reading eye for better things. He had noted with hostile interest crews wrecking the nice old tenements and greasy-spoons, and the new halls rising.

But now, as they were nearing the Center, Emil stopped the car and pushed back the glass slide.

"Why are you stopping?"

Emil said, "There's something happening across the street." He looked, wrinkling his face deeply, as if this explanation must really be heeded. But why, at such a time, should he have stopped for anything. "Don't you recognize those people, Mr. Sammler?"

"Which? Has someone scraped someone? Is it a traffic thing?" Of course he lacked the authority to tell Emil to drive on, but he gestured, nevertheless, with the back of his hand. He waved Emil forward.

"No, I think you'll want to stop, Mr. Sammler. I see your son-in-law there. Isn't that him, with the big green bag? And isn't that Wallace's partner?"


"That fat kid. The pink face, the beard. He's fighting. Can't you see?"

Where is this? In the street? Is it Eisen?"

"It's the other fellow who's in trouble. The young guy, the beard. I think he's getting hurt."

On the east side of the slant street a bus had pulled to the curb at a wide angle, obstructing traffic. Sammler could see now that someone was struggling there, in the midst of a crowd.

"One of those is Feffer?"

"Yes, Mr. Sammler."

"Wrestling with someone--with the bus driver?"

"Not the driver, no, I think not. Somebody else."

"Then i must go and see what it is."

The craziness of these delays! Almost deliberate, almost intentional, they were breaking down every barrier of patience. they got to you at last. Why this, why Feffer? But he could see now what Emil meant. Feffer was pinned to the front of a bus. That was Feffer against the wide bumper. Sammler began to pull at the handle of the door.

"Nor on the street side, Mr. Sammler. You'll be hit."

But Sammler, his patience utterly lost, was already hurrying through traffic.

Feffer, in the midst of the crowd, was fighting the black man, the pickpocket. There were twenty people at least and more were stopping, but no one was about to interfere. Struggling in the criminal's grip, Feffer was forced back against the big cumbersome machine. His head was knocking on the windshield below the empty driver's seat. The man was squeezing him, and Fefer was scared. He resisted, he defended himself, but he was inept. He was overmatched. Of course. How could it be otherwise? His bearded face was frightened. Upturned, the broad cheeks flamed, and wis wide-spaced brown eyes appealed for help. Or were thinking what to do. What should he do? Like a man groping in a stream for a lost object, while staring into air, mouth gaping in his beard. But he would not give up the Minox. One arm was held straight up, out of reach. The weight of the big body in the fawn-colored suit crushed him. He had had the bad luck to get his candid shot. The black man was snatching at the Minox. To get the tiny camera, to give Feffer a few kicks in the ribs, int he belly--what else would he have had in mind. Leaving, without haste if possible, before the police arrived. But Feffer, near panic, still was obstinate. Shifting his grip, the Negro grabbed and twisted his collar, holding him as he had held Sammler with his forearm against the wall. He choked Feffer with the neckband. The Dior shades, round and bluish, had not moved from the low-bridged nose. Feffer had caught the spouting red necktie in his fist, but could do nothing with it.

How shall we save this prying, stupid idiotic boy. He may be hurt. And I must go. There's no time. "Some of you," Sammler ordered. "Here! Help him. Break this up." But of course "some of you" did not exist. No one would do anything, and suddenly Sammler felt extremely foreign--voice, accent, syntax, manner, face, mind, everything, foreign.

Emil had seen Eisen. Sammler looked for him now. And there he was, smiling and very pale. He was evidently waiting to be discovered. Then he seemed delighted.

"What are you doing here?" said Sammler in Russian.

"And you, Father-in-law--what are you doing?"

"I?" I am rushing to the hospital to see Elya."

"Yes. And I was with my young friend on the bus when he took the picture. Of a purse being opened. I saw it myself."

"What a stupid thing!"

Eisen held his green bize bag. It contained his sculptures or medallions. Those Dead Sea pieces--iron pyrites or whatever they were.

"Let him give up the camera. Why doesn't he give it to him?" said Sammler.

"But how do we prevail upon him?" said Eisen in a tone of discussion.

"Get a policeman," Sammler said. He would have liked to say, too, "Stop this smiling."

"But I don't know English."

"Then help the boy."

"You help him, Father-in-law. I am a foreigner and a cripple. You're older, true. But I just got to this country."

Sammler said to the pickpocket, "Let go. Let him go."

The man's large face turned. New York was reflected in the lenses, under the stiff curves of the homburg. Perhaps he recognized Sammler. But nothing was said.

Give him the camera, Feffer. Hand it over," Sammler said.

Feffer, with a stare of shock and appeal, looked as if he expected soon to lose consciousness. He did not bring down his arm.

"I say let him have the stupid thing. He wants the film. Don't be an idiot."

Feffer may have been holding out in expectation of a squad car, waiting for the police to save him. It was hard otherwise to explain his resistance. Considering the Negro's strength--his crouching, squeezing, intense animal pressing-power, the terrific swelling of the neck and the tightness of the buttocks as he rose on his toes. In straining alligator shoes! In fawn-colored trousers! With a belt that matched his necktie--a crimson belt! How consciousness was lashed by such a fact!

"Eisen!" said Sammler, furious.

"Yes, Father-in-law."

"I ask you to do something."

"Let them do something." He motioned with the baize bag to the bystanders. "i only came forty-eight hours ago."

Again Mr. Sammler turned to the crowd, staring hard. Wouldn't anyone help? So even now--now, still!--one believed in such things as help. Where people were, help might be. It was an instinct and a reflex. (An unexasparated hope?) So, briefly examining faces, passing from face to face to face among the people along the curb--red, pale swarth, lined taut or soft, grim or adream, eyes bald-bue, iodine-redding, coal-seam black--how strange a quality their inaction had. They were expecting gratification, oh! at last! of teased, cheated, famished needs. Someone was going to get it! Yes. And the black faces? A similar desire. Another side. But the same. Though there was nothing to hear, Sammler had the sense that something was barking away. Then it struck him that what united everybody was a beatitude of presence. As if it were--yes--blessed are the present. They are here and not here. They are present while absent. So they were waiting in that ecstatic state. What a supreme privilege! And there was only Eisen to break up the fight. Whcih was, after all, an odd sort of fight. Sammler did not beliee that the black man would choke Feffer into unconsciousness; he would only go on squeezing, screwing the collar tighter until Feffer surrendered the Minox. Of course, there was always a chance that he might strike him, pull a knife, stab him. But there was something worse here than this event itself, namely, the feeling that stole over Sammler.

It was a feeling of horror and grew in strength, grew and grew. What was it? How was it to be put? He was a man who had come back. He had rejoined life. He was near to others. But in some essential way he was also companionless. He was old. He lacked physical force. He knew what to do, but had no power to execute it. He had to turn to someone else--to an Eisen! a man himself very far out on another track, orbiting a very different foreign center. Sammler was powerless. To be so powerless was death. And suddenly he saw himself not so much standing as strangely leaning, as reclining, and peculiarly in profile, and as a past person. That was not himself. It was someone--and this struck him--poor in spirit. Someone between the human and not-human states, between content and emptiness, between full and void, meaning and not-meaning, between this world and no world. Flying, freed from gravitation, light with release and dread, doubting his destination, fearing there was nothing to receive him.

"Eisen, separate them," he said. "He's been choked enough. The police will come, and then there will be arrests. And I must go. To stand here is crazy. Please. Just take the camera. Take it. That will stop this."

Then handsome Eisen, shrugging, grinning, making a crooked movement of the shoulders, working them free from the tight denim, stepped away from Sammler as though he were doing a very amusing thing at his special request. He drew up the sleeve of his right arm. the dark hairs were thick. Then shortening his grip on the cords of the baize bag he swung it very wide, swung with full force and struck the pickpocket on the side of the face. It was a hard blow. The glasses flew. The hat. Feffer was not immediately freed. The man was not immediately freed. The man seemed to rest on him. Obviously stunned. Eisen was a laborer, a foundry worker. He had the strength not only of his trade but also of madness. There was something limitless, unbounded, about the way he squared off, took the man's measure, a kind of sturdy viciousness. everything went into that blow, discipline, murderousness, everything. What have I done! This is much worse! This is the worst thing yet. Sammler thought Eisen had crushed the man's face. And he was now about to hit him again, with his medallions. The black man took his hands from Feffer and was turning. His lips came away from his teeth. Eisen had gashed his skin and the cheek was bleeding and swelling. Eisen clinked the weights from his wrist, spread his legs. "He'll kill that cocksucker!" someone in the crowd said.

"Don't hit him, Eisen. I never said that. I tell you no!" said Sammler.

But the bag of weights was speeding from the other side, very wide but accurate. It struck more heavily than before and knocked the man down. He did not drop. He lowered himself as though he had decided to lie in the street. The blood ran in points on his cheeck. The terrible metal had cut through him through the baize.

Eisen now heaved his weapon back over the shoulder, prepared to slam it straight down on the man's skull. Sammler seized his arm and twisted him away. "You'll murder him. Do you want to beat out his brains?"

You said, Father-in-law!"

They quarreled in Russian before the crowd.

"You said I had to do something. You said you had to go. I must do something. So I did"

"I didn't say to hit him with these damned irons. I didn't say to hit him at all. You're crazy, Eisen, crazy enough to murder him."

The pickpocket had tried to brace himself on his elbows. His body now rested on his doubled arms. He bled thickly on the asphalt.

"I am horrified!" Sammler said.

Eisen, still handsome, curly, still with the smile, though now panting, and the peculiar set of the toeless feet, seemed amused at Sammler's ludicrous inconsistency. He said, "You can't hit a man like this just once. When you hit him you must really hit him. Otherwise he'll kill you. You know. We both fought in the war. You were a Partisan. You had a gun. So don't you know?" His laughter, his logic, laughing and reasoning at Sammler's absurdities, made him repeat until he stuttered. "If in--in. No? If out--out. Yes? No? So answer."

It was the reasoning that sank Sammler's heart completely. "Where is Feffer?" he said, and turned away.

Feffer, resting his forehead against the bus, was getting back his breath. Putting it on, no doubt. To Sammler this exaggeration was revolting.

Damn these--these occasions! he was thinking. Damn them, it was Elya who needed him. It was only Elya he wanted to see. To whom there was something to say. Here there was nothing to say.

Saul Bellow - Mr. Sammler's Planet

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