“Two days later the Philistines enter the city. Saul is at home looking at his oatmeal and white toast when Chief shows up at the door.”
He’s at the Palmer House, 75-buck-a-head dinner for some Swedish minister of whatsits whose name Saul can’t even remember. At Saul’s table are aldermen, rabbis from important precincts, union bigshots. Up front the Swede’s making remarks about the importance of heavy industry in creating amity among peoples. The noise in the ballroom is all water in his head. He’s drowning in people.
In a moment Saul’s expected to join him at the dais, grip his little hand, say a few words. And he will. But he feels hollowed. He is fairly certain that sometime soon he will weep.
The insistence of voices is a swirling force. Saul has the feeling that he’s at the edge of an enormous cliff even though he’s never been on one before. The inner ear, the sinuses, the back of his neck, all the sensors evolution has deactivated are firing their signals of distress. A sob is definitely gathering.
Saul gets up, says his words and when he’s finished goes straight to the john. It takes forever to get out, first because of the calcifying nature of his own system then because at urinals on either side turn out to be guys who need favors. One’s from the cantors’ union and wants to know if his cousin will be slated for the water reclamation board. Saul says probably and that’s enough to get him to zip up and leave.
The other guy he doesn’t know. He’s an old Ukrainian, his parish is B’nai Zaken, Samuel’s parish, and the paving on his sidewalk is all shot to hell. Last month he twisted his ankle just walking to the mailbox – he pulls up a pant leg to reveal a purple knob above his sock.
This Ukrainian is much harder to dismiss. Saul has to tell him what the Streets and Sanitation boss looks like and where he’s sitting, tell him I sent you and that it’ll get taken care of. He opens up his arms to Saul and Saul, after a second, takes him in. The contused old Ukrainian is blessing him, his house, his days that remain. His body flutters, it’s subject to countless tiny quakes. Here is a thing and it legitimately matters to someone. The ground. The state of the ground is what moves this old Ukie. That’s it for Saul. The sob is upon him so quickly that the rest of the gents’ probably mistakes it for indigestion.
There is very little joy in doing this, Samuel told him on that first election night. You think nine thousand virgins are going to line the lakefront tomorrow singing your praises to the moon because they like you? Try again, slugger. You’re going to be a vacuum. You’re a federal repository of woe-is-me and what-can-be-done. The jobbers riding the El, they release their lament into the air, they let it go and are certain it’s headed straight to your chest, where you’ll crush it and make it better.
He spots his plainclothesman in the lobby and they’re on the road before anyone else can accost him.
They take State Street instead of Lake Shore Drive. Saul watches downtown recede into Negro nightclubs, brothels; there are procurers of dope and poor counsel. Lazy-eyed abortionists. Operators of impossible policy games. Storefront cults, heretics’ associations, dispensaries of gloom. “I could do something,” Saul says, not sure if it’s aloud.
Saul has tried to make it better. He’s built an airport, expressways, a convention center. He eliminates slums, smites enemies, keeps the tax assessments reasonable. He’s a believer in visibility, in rule by spotlight. There are maps in his office with fist-sized patches marked blight. Didn’t that used to be a munition reserved for God? Maps with unpredictable red lines zooming and dipping across highways and neighborhoods – some that are there, some that used to be there, some that will be. Pictures of dreams. Downtown is a gem, now that lepers and fakirs aren’t rolling on the sidewalks. Or what about the spiritualists. The adepts. The people who say they talk to the dead. They’ve been popular since forever, especially in Uptown or Endor or the housing projects of the Black Belt. There they say the spiritualists are a part of the community. But come on. Is this the kind of face we want to put on? We want to look forward. We’ve hewn this city out of unwelcoming earth and built skyward. Saul ran them out of town as part of the mourning for Samuel. There was a whole public works orgy to grieve his passing. The sorrow-dynamo has ground our sorriest moment into stuff on the covers of architecture magazines.
When he gets home The Missus is in the kitchen, reading a commentary. This is something new she’s been doing. Studying exegeses, spending time with the scholars Saul’s never been able to make hide nor hair of. She seems at home with the mystery and the word. Unbidden she makes Saul some tea and helps him out of his tefillin. She leans against him and kisses him softly under his right eye. His head fills with the astringent snap of whatever she’s wearing. He drops his head into the crook of her neck and she’s warm.
“Thank you, ketzel,” he says.
But what good is progress? You’ve got pains and irritations. You chafe and itch. Your subtle thoughts come out like pieces of a broken bottle.
God’s voice, once a deep, lilting whisper in this thicket of his ears, is gone.
Saul’s throne room on the fifth floor of city hall pulls double duty as party headquarters. He’s just come out of a council hearing. He has been battering away at them for a new public hospital. We’ll call it the King Samuel Memorial Indigent Hospital. There’s a good deal of apprehension in the council – “Honestly, Saul, charity costs a lot of money” – more than he’s accustomed to. Why you’d want to deny bandages and splints for the poor is something Saul doesn’t understand.
He’s about to get on the horn to a couple alderman who were whipped especially badly but then his Chief comes tearassing through the door.
“Philistines took Gary this morning.”
“I hear different things. I hear a thousand. I hear a million.”
“None we’ve spotted.”
Which means they aren’t stopping at Gary.
There were rumors of an invasion all summer. The Philistines were the name most mentioned but you also heard the Communists, the Blackstone Rangers. Could’ve been anyone. Lots of chatter, especially after Samuel’s passing, that a campaign could be launched.
“This isn’t good,” Chief says.
“Affirmative,” says Saul.
“Ugly things from Gary. Do you want details?”
“I believe I can live without.”
Chief is talking to his back. Saul wants to dwell on the clear and burnished western sky, which seems to be offering reassurance.
“What’s the…” The words aren’t there. “How real is this threat?”
As it turns out the sky is useless.
“You’re going to need to have said something. By tonight.”
“I can hold the papers off for a little while. I’ll try and delay the evening editions. I’ll get on the phone to the networks. But at some point.”
“Acknowledgment of difficulty. Straits. Trials. Exhortations to fortitude.”
“Does it ever change?”
“Are you sure you can do it?”
“Why the hell not.”
“You’ll say something.”
“The picture is sickening from Gary.”
“I don’t doubt.”
“Things done to children and pets.”
“I’m on it.”
“I pray you are.”
He looks into the camera. His expression is meant to be thoughtful but with a face like Saul’s thoughtful can easily be mistaken for stunned.
“We have recently received intelligence informing us that the Army of the Philistines is marching toward our city. I would ask our citizens to remain calm and continue about your business.”
He gets up and goes home.
Early next morning he’s driven out to see the Philistines. It’s a rotten, drizzly day; the skies low and smoky. The northbound expressway is clogged. Across the median Saul can see inside the cars, crammed and hurrying. Their open tailgates gape and sofas, hutches, bureaus jut outward.
The sedan rolls up toward the Skyway and Saul is gripped by a sensation he’s never felt before. A stiff hand has been placed over his heart. The steel plants below are still. He can see no other cars, no signs of life. The tollbooths have been abandoned.
Saul built this road. He’s built thousands of miles of roads. Kings and diplomats come to visit from Russia, the farthest Orient, Washington. They glide over the asphalt, they whirl through the cloverleafs, and his kingdom, in a garland of sunshine glowing off the fresh tarmacadam, stands proud.
The Skyway has been barricaded off just before Indianapolis Avenue and an observation post has been erected. Mines are being laid up ahead.
The County Commissioner’s been here all night. He leads Saul up to the top of the post. A pair of snipers bow quickly and go back to their scopes. Their stoicism is reassuring.
“So where are they?” Saul says.
Chief hands Saul a pair of binoculars and points south at a spot in the Indiana distance. He puts the binoculars up to his eyes and can see a rolling mass. It’s an eager, ever moving mass, a surge of spears and swords, jeeps pulling howitzers with pagan priests manning the triggers; their black standards ripple, frayed at the edges. He is watching a swarm, a gaggle, a murder – a wholly animal conglomerate, with neither spirit nor soul, without life as we understand it, without the chemicals and genetic indices by which we measure our own selves. He sees a schoolbus full of grenades and rockets, woman archers, blasphemous flags.
He takes a step backwards and feels dizzy. He totters for a second, until Chief puts a hand on his shoulder.
“What do we think?” Chief says.
Saul looks to the County Commissioner. “How many can we get out there?”
“Funny. Go get me twenty-five and that’s a fair fight.”
“Police and fire are giving everyone,” says the Commissioner.
“What about Streets and San?” Saul says. “Postal. Who oversees crossing guards?”
“You want me to see if 4H can lend some bodies? We’ve got what we’ve got.”
Commissioner is an okay guy. He’s someone who understands the bright side must ontologically exist, but he looks as though the universe has just proved him wrong.
Saul aims the binoculars back toward the city.
John, his oldest, was a banshee as a baby. Double-barreled colic that got worse at night. When he first slept through Saul still woke in the underhours. It was the acknowledgment of nothing happening that stirred him. There are no screams, he thought, he is going to make it. He remembers it as a quiet that was too present to be called peaceful.
This is the quiet he sees looking out over the city. The El lumbers along. Motion in a regular time. Goings and comings. Things operating with purpose. There aren’t screams.
He has his maps, charts, the latest intelligence. He takes a black pen and scratches out all the territory he knows they will lose. He is aware that with each line he is surrendering a certain number of lives. He doesn’t feel regret. That has to come later. What he does feel is a longing for these inked-over souls. He misses them. He wishes they didn’t have to leave.
Once he’s done the conceivable damage he begins inserting his own forces. He draws them with red bubbles. He looks for weak points in the Philistine lines, geographical oddities to be exploited. The red bubbles sprout arrows. He sends his men into imagined battle and they don’t come back.
Always, you consider, you mangle, you atomize long enough and something presents itself. It becomes apparent through the gouges of pen, urging itself into form, sometimes a form as simple as a bludgeon, other times more elegant, lithe and intricate, an almost erotic creation, a remonstrance that won’t be evident until it’s nearly done. And then. And then:
Deploy X here, send a phalanx of Y and Y-sub-one there, simultaneously charge Aleph, Bet and Gimmel. So-and-so will fall by your sword. His sons will be remanded into state custody.
But not this time.
Here’s a wave of panic and he has to stand up.
He has his plainclothesman drive out to one of the public nature preserves and he comes back with a short, scrawny ram. The beast is grout-colored, unsteady, irritable. It scoffs at Saul’s grass and flowerbeds. Saul chooses to read his indignation as defiance. It’s okay to go down angry. From his study window Saul says all right and the cop shoots. The ram seems to bounce. It stays upright for a moment, long enough for Saul to see a crimson areola bloom against its wool, then falls onto its chin. The cop waits a moment, coats the ram with gasoline and lights a match.
He goes back to his maps. He starts mumbling a shema as the smoke drifts inside. Chewing the end of a ballpoint pen, aware of possible impending calamity, clearing space inside his head for the salvatory message. He sings with the pen in his lips, sings like he’s trying to woo somebody, singing an invitation, won’t you come back to me, his tongue growing dry from the smoke.
“What on earth did you do out there?”
It’s The Missus, two steps inside the doorway, chin notched forward as it will when she’s displeased. She doesn’t often enter the study but the smoke, all foul and in no hurry to depart, is too much to not mention.
“Sorry, ketzel, sorry.” He looks down at the defaced map.
“There is just so much… and I don’t know.”
She comes close and takes his hand. “What would you know if you could. What have you ever known.”
Two days later the Philistines enter the city. Saul is at home looking at his oatmeal and white toast when Chief shows up at the door.
The southernmost precinct house has been torched with all its cops barricaded inside. They have wolf-dogs, bad teeth, poor educations, and expensive-looking clothes. They pee on the dead, it is said, and only loot from stores on the west side of the street.
The citizens who have not fled get herded into Gately Stadium where we watched our boys play football beneath vast autumn skies and where the rabbis used to hold Sukkah building contests on Sukkoth. We can all remember all of that and yet it seems to have happened to another people someplace else, someplace lined with soaring oaks or set in a valley between ferocious peaks. We apologize to that happy civilization for filching memories. That past and the promise of its future have been chewed up, shat out by the mace-wielding thing at the thirty-five yard line in a zoot suit with a cat’s head dangling from a chain around his neck who’s moving toward us, taking his time.
The Philistines tell the Red Cross that they have offered everyone present the chance to convert, to give themselves over to Ba’al or Grendel or whatever it is they worship. They get on the national news with bones in their mouths, with jungle music playing behind them, with death, subversion, and fornication pooling above.
“How many of the guys from the atomic project are left at the University?” Saul asks the Chief.
“What about the National Guard? The Nephilim?”
“We’ve tried, Saul. Nobody is going to help.”
“Why not?” says Saul, fully aware of the answer.
Things always go wrong. Grief begets grief. Two springs ago, there was confrontation with the Amalekites over water rights on the lake, unfair tariffs, alliances with fanatics. This lead to war. Go on, said God. Saul then sat up late in his study, plotted out an effective, throttling strategy. An expeditionary force was sent to Hormah, their fleabag capitol. So, God said. Yes. Almost done. Almost. Almost. So. So we’re there. Keep going. Saul kind of sighed. He went ahead and gave the say-so and in Hormah much violence occurred.
Agag, the fat Amalekite king, in the lockup at 26th and California, cried about his mother with terminal cancer of the womanhood. First war and now a grown man crying for mommy.
“Saul, your mom living?” said the ninny-king.
“No. She is not. We had a civic month of mourning when she passed. We dyed the river black. Perhaps you saw the pictures in Life.”
“That’s right, that’s right. That was lovely, Saul. My mom, they pump her full of antibiotics, she’s got the radiation, but I, I don’t follow it.”
They paraded him naked down Michigan Avenue in a cold May thunderstorm.
Saul, blood weary, let Agag go. His army had been routed; his people were liquefied; the plunder would keep the party coffers full for a long time. He sent Agag away and Agag cried some more. All snot and gratitude, blubbery hosannas to Saul going up to Agag’s weirdo deity. “Keep my name out of his ears,” he said, and began to regret his decision. So instead Agag started going on about how he could see his mother’s last breath, be at her side, watch her ascend into creepy Amalekite heaven.
And what do you get for that? Samuel coming up to the fifth floor, saying in front of everyone, “Boy, have you loused this up,” the old man quivering and sneering, fumbling his cane, not bothering to wipe the spittle from his beard. “You have dropped the stupid ball, stupid.”
Saul brought the old guy into the throne room, sat him down, called for two glasses of ice water.
“This isn’t why I had you slated. This isn’t what we look for.”
Sam trembled from his outburst. His entire body shook, the slivers of hands, the narrow shoulders.
“They aren’t troubling us again,” Saul said softly, the way he spoke to his children after nightmares.
Sam had a habit of mouthing his words before he said something he was unsure of. A rehearser, a deliberator, Samuel was.
“You’ve done so much good here,” he eventually said. “So much good. I wish you cared a little bit more for the blacks and the bohunks but who are they? They’re votes. I’m not blind, at least not to that. What I want to know is why you didn’t finish him. You know that’s how this ends. But you didn’t do it.”
“I took pity,” Saul said.
“You did. You took.” He said the words like he was examining them, testing them for tensile strength.
“We had the guy beat. He was entirely defeated. They still haven’t gotten all the bodies off the streets. He was a ruined man. It seemed that sending him home would be an appealing act of mercy.”
“Appealing to whom?”
“I serve my Lord and also the constituency.”
No pauses here. But Samuel lifted a finger.
“Whoever said their wants are the same?”
Something in Saul’s gut lurched.
“Did any of them ever say they wanted to see an act of mercy?”
Saul braced himself against his desk. “Did any of them ever say they wanted to see anything at all?”
Sam said nothing.
“Were there any requests? Polite suggestions? This was my operation. I was handed a puny narrative. I was presented with a beginning: Amalekites comma war. Whatever else was a blank. It was up to me to fill it in and I did.”
“You know he was supposed to end.”
“I had had enough. I let depart this one oozing man rather than tie him to a railroad track. Supposed to die was the imperative but it’s the man charged with the execution who has to be looked to.”
Sam’s dabbed generously at his face with a handkerchief and motioned Saul close.
“History is His angle,” Samuel said quietly. “The erosion caused by time scraping against the universe. He constructs dimensions. Do you think appearances register with him?”
Sam tottered back toward the door and stopped to gather his words. “I wish you hadn’t done this,” he said. He looked out Saul’s window. “I truly wish you hadn’t.”
Saul continued making plans, improving things, having the lakefront rezoned to accommodate more high-rise apartment buildings, getting the state assembly to float him some high-interest bonds to put up a new train station, lobbying the DOT for a series of highways linking the city to its hinterlands.
Whaddyou think, he said.
What’s the good word?
The boys on the periphery fight hard but they can’t last. Saul pulls back and that’s when the Philistines unfold their lines. They’re being dramatic. Pure showmanship. Each hour a little bit of the city is chipped away.
The people who got out in time, a bewildered and beaten throng, huddle at McCormick Place. The convention center cannot hold them all and the spillover sleeps under spitting drizzle at Soldier Field, eating bologna and oranges once destined for school lunches.
“I think it goes without saying,” Saul says into the press box microphone, “I think that it is true for everyone here, this is not an easy time. I want you to know that I thank all of you for being here, for being in this time. We will weather this disturbance.”
Chief scribbles something on a napkin: SURVIVAL.
“Many of you might be wondering, how will we get through this? How are we going to resolve? The answer to that is, we would not be here if we could not get through. We are here now, which means we will always be here.”
He notices Chief’s eyes are now roughly double their normal size.
“You are a permanence. You are all irrefutable facts like the moon or the lake. If we were meant to be overrun, chased away, marched off in a trail of our own blood, why would we have been here in the first place? We will continue on, just as we always have, because there is no other possibility.”
Two nights later, after hearing the news that the University had been turned to cinders, the Missus makes him a full meal. Saul looks at the splayed carcasses, the dripping flesh, the fruit of denuded trees. So as to not completely insult her, he takes a bite. A moment later his stomach is seized by a roiling so intense that he hurries outside. Since the invasion he’s been afflicted by diarrhea and the foulest gas he has ever known. His plainclothesman, a boyish looking guy called Marciniak, sees him pacing on the porch with his hands on his hips and comes out to see if all is well. Saul shoos him away and continues to pace in his sulphurous cloud. The night is cold but he doesn’t feel it.
Eventually he dozes off on the porch. When Saul wakes up he knows he’s been gasping and trying to shout. He can feel the cold now; his skin is damp. He knocks on the window of the plainclothesmen’s sedan.
“I need you to do something for me.”
An hour later he’s back with another cop, a vice detective, this one named Ben-Yehuda. As they’re about to drive off, Saul tells them to stop. He gets out and circles the car. It’s a late-model Olds, well-kept.
“We can’t go around in this. We’ll look like moguls.”
Marciniak and Ben-Yehuda share a look. Something about what they’ve been asked to do seems pointless and at the same time perfectly in line with what’s upon them. They come back in a seized Buick that looks like a rotten tooth. Saul grins when he sees it. He runs his hand along a streak of rust and rubs the copper residue on his pruny hands.
It’s well after midnight by the time they reach Endor, almost the very top of the city, far from the Philistines but looking invaded and smashed all the same, a crummy neighborhood of brick lowrises, boarded storefronts, a disembarkation point for newly come hicks: Appalachians, Ammonites, Lithuanians.
They pull up to a yellow four-flat. Marciniak opens the trunk and fishes out a blanket, which he drapes over Saul. Its fringe reaches down over his eyes. The blanket is cold, itchy like horsehair, stinking of motor oil and something more upsettingly organic.
“We need some precaution, boss,” Marciniak says.
“You fellas sure about this?” Saul asks. “I mean, how many are left?”
“There’s a few,” says Ben-Yehuda.
“And she’s good?”
“That’s why she’s left.”
They go up to the fourth floor and Ben-Yehuda starts banging on the door. The woman who answers does not looked surprised to see guests at this hour.
“Hello, hello, boys. Hello, hello, and hello to you, too.”
Marciniak and Ben-Yehuda march in but Saul hangs back in the hallway. The woman takes his arm with a hand that’s larger than his own and leads him in.
Say what you will about the building, the part of town, at least this person keeps a decent home. There’s no dirt or dust, the furniture is all tidy, nice needlepoint on the walls.
Saul can’t locate the face or place her accent. Her skin is just a little cloudy; her lips have a touch of darkness. She’s pretty in an odd way. It’s mostly her nose, which is small and flattened and gives her face an impression of incompleteness.
“What can I do for you?”
What do you do with transgression? How do you start wronging? Being here smacks of ritual and rituals need to be done in the right way. He’s looking for instruction, clearance.
“Boys, it is late.”
Ben-Yehuda gives him a nod.
“I need to talk to someone,” Saul says.
“You’re talking to me.”
“Somebody who is departed.” His voice feels pinched.
“It is illegal to consult with spirits—”
“Don’t be thick,” Ben-Yehuda says.
She holds up her hands. “Thick? I don’t know thick. Did you know, I heard a young man who was claiming that the jails were being emptied out so the inmates could go and fight. One would think they’d like as many bodies as possible…”
“My word,” says Ben-Yehuda.
She weighs it and decides it’s enough. She looks at Saul. “I run a clean business. No demons, wicked spirits. None of the evildoers or villains. Most people want family. I can do that. I can do the movie star or the football player. You use bad language and we’re done. You start talking about committing any crime and we’re done. What do you pay?”
Saul hasn’t got a penny on him. The cops pool what they’ve got and then haggle with her. When all is settled she turns back to Saul.
“Who would you like to talk to, doll?”
“Somebody very dear to me. He’s gone and I need him now.”
“Yes, needs are very vital, aren’t they, but if you could perhaps supply me with a little bit more information.”
“Bring up Samuel for me.”
He says this with his eyes closed and his head lowered. Is that shame? In preparation for thunder? There’s something massy on his shoulders, ballast around his neck. But all’s quiet. He opens his eyes: the woman’s kneeling in front of him. She’s got the fringe of the stinking blanket in her hands.
“What’s your game, doll?”
“Bring up Samuel.”
“This is very deep water you ask for. This is very heavy water. You follow?”
She sits on the floor cross-legged and motions Saul to join her. There is movement inside of her, inside of the room, some kind of momentum produced without any visible cause. She bends her neck and it’s as though an artery has been opened, part of the integument behind the world has been sliced into and from it flows an inchoate force, and the woman bobs and flicks her head until:
She bolts forward. His face is in her hands.
“Did you see him?”
“Why didn’t you say?” she whispers. “You’ll take my head off.”
“You’re mine. I’ll keep you. Was Samuel there?”
“Can I talk to him?”
Again she lowers her head.
“Oh please tell me this is a joke. I do not like how this looks.”
Samuel. There can be no question. The woman’s head is down but the voice is everywhere.
“Is it you?”
“So help me God, you dragged me up, you better have something better to say.”
“The Voice is gone and the Philistines are here.”
“Well that’s quite a situation.”
“Sam, I need help.”
“What makes you think I can?”
“They’re burning through my city and I don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll be up front with you. You and your kingdom are finished. Tomorrow is when it all goes kaput.”
The woman begins to sob.
“Yes, I know. You asked and I know. Now let me try you, mister. Do you know why you’re going to die tomorrow? I’ll give you a hint. It’s not because you were a bully and not because you were obtuse. We expected that. You weren’t a monster, kept the fornicating to a minimum, had a pretty good batting average when it came to the Sabbath. As these things go we’ve seen far worse than you. Have you figured it out yet?”
“It was Agag. I know. I’ll find him now. Let me. Let me run. I will remove his eyes with his spine.”
“It wasn’t just that you let him live. It was that you decided to let him live. You tried too hard. You never understood that you called no shots. If you had just listened, taken notes, recited the lines. That was your gift. You had power up to the eyeballs and not a drop of liability. You had box seats for the miraculous show. You could build, develop, beautify. You had the conductor’s vantage, the bouncer’s privilege. All that we expected was that you let it come to you. Everything would have wound up where it belonged. That’s the why. That’s whodunit. It’s out there, now. It’s coming.”
Saul is back in the chair. There’s something cold and misshapen at his center now. Marciniak’s quietly crying; Ben-Yehuda’s scooted to the far corner of the sofa. He’s staring out the window at a sidewalk dappled with uncertain streetlight.
The woman is gone.
“The hell,” says Saul.
He staggers upright and pushes down the apartment’s hallway. At the end there’s a closed door. It seems to recede from him as he gets closer but he’s just unsteady, crossfooted and uncentered. He makes the door and opens it, and there’s the woman at the stove. This is the brightest room in the apartment, perhaps in the ward. Steam rises behind her. Her cheeks are swollen but she smiles broadly.
“What is this foolishness?” Saul says.
There’s a card table kitted out with a pleasantly embroidered tablecloth, baby blue and yellow, sunrise over a farm motif across the middle, someone far off’s notion of how nice could look.
Saul surges toward it but Marciniak and Ben-Yehuda catch him before he can do any damage.
“Hey,” they say.
They put him down at one of the chairs.
The woman’s crying again, and singing now too. She brings over a tureen and begins serving soup. There are carrots and rice and celery; the broth is lovingly murky. Chunks of bread emerge. Coffee is poured.
Saul hardly looks up. He eats in greedy silence. He knocks over a saucer, dribbles soup on his shirt, makes internal noises. He’s too ravenous to care.
Gradually the others at the table begin talking about characters they’ve known. A dealer in stolen laxatives, a defrocked rabbi offering tours of sheol, a kid who befriends widows but won’t seduce them. They laugh. Saul eats. He has never been adroit with the talking and listening. The verbal dance steps everyone else executed so seamlessly. He preferred the seat at the front of the room. He keeps his face near the bowl and does not mind the laughter.
They go on about the hard-triers and inept cons, these scramblers in the shallow tides of thought. They are talking about all the incipient dead. Saul must at last acknowledge that he has known people too. His boy John, bivouacked beneath the El tracks downtown now, and Commissioner, who was strung up earlier that day from a streetlight at the corner of Ashland and Pershing; Chief, at home with his wife and the babies he adopted; The Missus by bedstand light. In a nightshirt, a commentary close to her eyes, some petrified uniform standing in the doorway, there to keep away the Philistine boogeymen.
Eventually he becomes aware of the woman’s gaze on him.
There is so much warmth in her eyes they could level the city and much beyond.
Saul says nothing.
“I can see the man who is going to tell me to get down on my knees,” the witch says. “He is lovely. On one cheek he has tattooed the name of his dead mama and on the other is the inutterable name of his god.”
“Symmetry,” mutters Marciniak. “The fucking right do they have.”
“The right they’ll build out of our bones, doll,” she says.
Ben-Yehuda makes a show of the long-barreled tool holstered under his coat.
“Unending night comes loudly,” he says.
“If you think you know from loud,” says the witch, with a smirk that’s pretty terrifyingly condescending.
“Shvaygt,” says Saul. Silence.
Marciniak nods toward the window. “We probably ought to.”
Saul tells the woman to go north, keep the lake on your right, don’t stop until you hit Wisconsin or Samarrah. She laughs and starts cleaning the dirty plates.
“You’re a beautiful person,” says Saul. “I’m sorry to have done this to you.”
Moving back into the city, his city, inside the fetid Buick, he remembers what she said in response. It’s not the eulogy he would have hoped for but really what claim do you have over those.
Over the police radio comes they hear that the ramparts have fallen. The remaining cops are digging in around city hall. The Missus has been barricaded in the throne room. Bodies are being set afire and catapulted at the fifth floor. All he has ever wanted was to keep moving up, for the city to keep straining away from the ground, far from the dirt, from the sewage and unrising ancestors who were too flocked by the bad mood of the communal memory to ever bother getting off their knees, and into the cool shining sky. What knowledge did that require? What deeper understanding? Progress comes across the land in a scything motion. It sweeps through, a gust of inarguable thought. (Comets of blood and bone are streaking through the sky, those move up, those soar, those arrive at steel and glass and are spectacular.) Couldn’t I be that gust? That scythe? The faces of the police are aimed squarely ahead, into the deep approach of the Loop where there is something dark and heavy waiting to be settled.
“You have nothing to apologize for,” the witch had said, taking his face in his hands for a second time, “you don’t have to say sorry, you do not need to apologize for the mess in my kitchen or the lies you told in my parlor, for my friends you sent to Stateville, the homes you knocked over, for the rampaging army of ghouls you’ve brought down on us, for the lives you’re tossing away like stones into the lake, you do not have to say you’re sorry because even if you knew what that meant, even if it was something you could do, I know what it will be like when all this is done, I have seen where will go next, and you should feel no grief for sending us there.”
Photo by Chany Crystal