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Authors: Howard Fast

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BOOK: The Pledge
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It was not a problem. His editor assured him that it was not a problem. The job would be waiting for him. He walked out into the sunlight and shook himself, the way a dog shakes off water. Again, as with Sally, the feeling of liberation fought the feeling of being lost, of having taken the wrong step. It was not the wrong step, he told himself; it was being back here after so long that made him uncertain of so many things. Actually, what was there to worry about? He was single, he was far from broke, and he was free.

He walked on, block after block. He wanted to see the city, feel it, know it again. In a circle, he went down to Fourteenth Street, and then walked east across Fourteenth Street. There was Lüchow's. He had eaten there with his father and mother when he was fifteen, a festive, heavy meal of German food that made his mother cringe. She was one of the new nutritionists, whole wheat bread and salad vegetables. He looked through the glass windows at the old chandeliers and dark woodwork. How strange that after the mortal struggle against the Germans, and having seen the horrors of the death camps, he should have only the teenage memories. Nothing here connected with what he had seen in Europe. He walked uptown to Gramercy Park, pausing outside the Players' Club. He had an Uncle Bert who was a member and who had promised that when he came home, he would be put up for membership. But Uncle Bert, his mother's older brother, had died while Bruce was overseas, and right now, he had no desire to join any club. He walked up Lexington Avenue, recalling a wonderful Armenian restaurant in the upper Twenties, where they would go occasionally to feast on rice and lamb broiled on a spit. He remembered introducing the place to Prudence. He knew the city better than she did, and each part that he showed her was like a small gift. Odd that he could think about Prudence so objectively, as if she were cut from cardboard, simply the picture of her and no existence beyond that. He turned left toward Fourth Avenue, and sure enough, there was the restaurant. Things don't dissolve in three years. He walked on north to where Fourth Avenue became Park Avenue, and then down the hill to Forty-second Street, past Grand Central Station and west on Forty-second Street. It was all there, different but still there, the color, the variety of people, the old, beautiful bulk of the Public Library, and then Times Square with its crowds, its bums, its hookers, its tangle of traffic, and the wonderful clanging, bell-ringing yellow streetcars soon to disappear forever.

It was late afternoon when he reached his place on Seventy-sixth Street. A man in a Panama hat stood outside the town house, and he looked at Bruce, and then said, “Bacon? Are you Mr. Bacon?”

“Most of the time,” Bruce said.

The tall man in the Panama hat ignored the humor, took out his wallet, showed his credentials, and identified himself as Carl Jorgenson of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “I'd like to talk to you if I might,” Jorgenson said.

“If you wish,” Bruce said. “If I could be helpful, why not?”

In his living room, Jorgenson complimented him on the appearance of the place.

“My wife decorated it. We're divorced now.”

“Away too long?”

Bruce shrugged.

“That's the way the war did it,” Jorgenson said sympathetically. “Nobody counts those casualties.”

He was pleasant enough. He wore a ruptured duck to show that he had not been left out of things, and if that was a bit gauche at this date, he did work for the government, and who knew what their rules were? It was Bruce's first encounter with the FBI, and his feelings were absolutely neutral. If he felt anything about them, it was an underlying sense of them as a secret police, and a secret police was nothing he could applaud. He excused himself for a moment, went into his tiny kitchen, took ice cubes from the refrigerator, and came back into the living room with ice, glasses, and a bottle of gin.

“Can I pour you a drink? Just gin on the rocks. It's all I have.”

“Thank you. Not on the job,” Jorgenson said.

“And how do I fit into the job?” Bruce wanted to know.

Jorgenson's face was long and sad. A smile might have helped it, but he didn't smile. “If you could answer a few questions?” he said. “You don't have to. This is a very informal visit, but we would appreciate it if you could.”

“I don't know what the hell you're doing here, and if you want me to answer questions, suppose you tell me what this is all about.” He felt anger beginning, and he didn't know why he should be angry except that a finger was being pointed at him. What did they say — spinach was without empathy, chopped liver was funny, raisins were a medium laugh — and FBI? What was FBI? Why did it do something cold and constricting to his stomach?

“My questions will explain that.”

His feelings crystallized. Throw the bastard out! Since when do you, Bruce Bacon, hold out your hand to secret police cops! But then his curiosity took hold.

“Go ahead,” he said, dropping ice into a glass and pouring gin. “You don't mind if I have a drink?”

“Not at all.”

“You don't mind if I smoke?”

“Oh, no. Go right ahead.” Jorgenson watched him stuff a pipe, a new pipe. Bruce had smoked pipes years ago and then dropped it overseas. This was a pipe he had picked up a week before, but he found he had lost the habit. Why then was he smoking now?

Jorgenson had taken a notebook out of his pocket. He glanced in it now and said suddenly, “Legerman. Harold Legerman. You know him?”

Bruce put the pipe aside, thinking, The hell with it! I don't know why I want the damn thing. The name didn't register for a long moment, and then he said, “Hal Legerman? What on earth do you want with Legerman?”

“I asked whether you know him?”

“Know him? Sure. I met him in the CBI.”

“How well do you know him?”

Suddenly, Bruce backed off and became cautious. “Casually. I was a correspondent overseas. I knew GI's, a hundred of them, maybe a thousand.”

“You don't recall a thousand names. You remember Legerman. Right?”

“I said you could ask me questions. I didn't say you could grill me. This is ridiculous.”

“Perhaps to you. To us it's a very serious matter, Mr. Bacon. Is Legerman a communist?”

“Ask him.”

“I'm asking you if you know or do not know whether Mr. Legerman is a communist?”

“Mr. Jorgenson, I don't even know whether you're a communist. Are you?”

“For the record, I am not.”

“I was trying to be cute. I'm not good at it. I couldn't care less about who is or is not a communist. I have my own problems.”

“Nevertheless, I am very serious. Do you know whether or not Mr. Legerman is a communist?”

“I don't know, and if I knew I wouldn't tell you.”

“Why not? I am a representative of your government — trying to serve this country, which is your country.”

“That's a hell of a locution. Does it come with the job? I mean, do you memorize it?”

“I am trying to be polite and straightforward, sir.”

“Look,” Bruce said impatiently, “don't feed me shit. You are not a representative of my government, you are a goddamn member of a secret police. Why don't you ask me whether I'm a communist?”

“Are you?”

“No. Why don't you ask me whether I'm a Democrat or a Republican?”

“Because that's no business of mine,” Jorgenson said patiently. “Those are legitimate American institutions. I have been both polite and patient, Mr. Bacon. I cannot for the life of me understand why you refuse to answer a few simple questions.”

“Am I refusing? You asked me whether Legerman is a member of the Communist Party. I said I don't know.”

“When you were in India, did you attend any Communist Party meetings with him?”

“No.”

“Do you know a Professor Chandra Chatterjee?”

“Yes. I mean by that that I spent an evening at his home. I wouldn't say that constitutes knowing him.”

“Did you know that Professor Chatterjee is a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Bengal?”

“Now hold on, Jorgenson, just hold on. This is setting up like a bad spy novel. You want to know about me, ask me. I am nonpolitical. My father, who is a very nice man, is a registered Republican. That's all right with me. I went to college at Williams. Other colleges were very political. Williams was not, and what politicking went on there I had nothing to do with. I don't like you. I resent your being here in my apartment, and I think you'd better go before I get very nasty and say things to you that I may regret.”

Jorgenson rose and put on his Panama hat. “It's a reaction I wouldn't expect from a man like you. I'm sorry you couldn't be more relaxed about it. I was only doing my job.”

“I suppose you were,” Bruce agreed. “I tend to get nasty when I'm pushed. It's a character flaw. Forgive me.” But there was no note of apology or interest in Bruce's tone, and Jorgenson left without saying anything more.

Bruce had dinner with his parents the following week, and after dinner his father asked him into his study and consulting room, where he could smoke a cigar with his coffee — something Bruce's mother did not permit in any other room in the house. Cigars were his father's single large vice, at least according to his mother. He smoked only two a day, one in the morning and one after dinner, and endured his wife's unhappiness. Bruce loved his father's study. In one corner, there was a human skeleton, hanging from an iron support, wired together, a thing that even in his childhood delighted him instead of frightening him. It was
de rigueur
in the early part of the century, when his father had been a medical student. The desk was an old, beautiful partners' desk, where he loved to sit facing his father, and where he seated himself now. There were two big black leather chairs, a polished hardwood floor, and on the walls framed engravings of his father's respected colleagues, Louis Pasteur, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and Mark Twain. Neither his wife nor his son understood his selection, but Bruce had always felt that his father's love of Samuel Clemens had eased his own struggle out of medicine and into journalism. It was quite a break. His father was the third generation of physicians in the Bacon family.

“You never tried a cigar?” his father asked him, lighting a long Cuban panatela.

“I tried it. You asked me that before.”

“Yes, I forgot. Before this wretched war. I hate cigarettes, unhealthy, coffin nails. But a cigar is something else. Tell me, how's it coming?”

“Not too bad. Getting used to things all over again.”

“Yes, of course. That's a nice girl, that Sally Pringle.”

“Yes, very nice,” Bruce agreed.

Dr. Bacon studied his cigar, took a gentle puff, and then watched the wisp of smoke circle up, after which he said, “I hear you've taken a leave of absence from the paper.”

“Word gets around, doesn't it? How did you hear that?”

“Dr. Benedict knows your managing editor.”

“Well, I'll be damned. You're telling me I'm important enough to be a subject of their conversation?”

“Bruce, you're more important than you imagine. Your stuff has been read all over this country for years.”

“The war's over, finished, and the American public has the memory of a mosquito.”

“We won't argue that. I'm sure you know exactly what you're doing.”

“I'm going to write a book.”

His father nodded. “I'll look forward to it. Have you started?”

“Trying to get it together in my head. That's the first step.”

“How long do you imagine it will take?”

“I don't know.” Bruce had left that open. “I've never written a book. Maybe a year, maybe two years.”

“Well — you know, you'll have to live,” Dr. Bacon said uneasily.

“Is that what it's leading up to?” Bruce said, grinning. “Thanks, Dad, but I'm well fixed financially.”

“Good. However, if the occasion should arise —”

“I hope not.” Then he went on to explain his financial condition. “I suppose the best break for me at this moment is that Pru left me the apartment. She had paid the rent right through this year's lease. I imagine she had guilts, but she was very decent about the whole thing.”

“She's a fine woman. I wish this hadn't happened.” It was the first time either his father or his mother had spoken about the divorce.

“It had to happen. It didn't hurt. We had become strangers to each other.”

“That happens.”

They went on talking. It was a good hour, and the first time in his life that Bruce had opened up entirely to his father. They talked about the war, and how it had been to see it happening and yet not be a part of it, the senselessness and cruelty and madness, the things that imprint and remain for a lifetime, the opening of a concentration camp and the release of its inmates, the time he was in a jeep, trying to catch up to the advance, and he saw by the road the body of a German soldier, the trunk and the legs, the upper body and head blown away, leaving the lower body intact from the waist down, the body of a child, headless, like a doll, with a woman staring at it, motionless, catatonic. He told his father about the comparatively brief aftermath in India.

“You know, it adds up to nothing,” Bruce said. “Yes, we destroyed Hitler and Nazism, but I've been thinking lately that we created him, and when we found he was not to our exact specifications, we had to destroy him. I remember way back, in the late thirties or maybe the middle thirties, I read an article in
Collier's
magazine about Hitler and his Brown House, and they were not without admiration for what he was setting up, and somewhere in Germany, I was sitting next to a tough old regular army colonel, and I said some words of opinion concerning Adolf Hitler, and this colonel — he came from Mississippi — this guy says to me, Why do you hate him, because he's their son of a bitch? If he was our son of a bitch, you'd write eulogies about him. Would I, Dad? I don't know.”

BOOK: The Pledge
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