Set this house on fire, p.15
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       Set This House on Fire, p.15

           William Styron
 

  “Cheers,” I responded, tipping my glass, thinking gloomily again of di Lieto. “Why do they make such rotten soldiers, then?”

  “That’s a different matter,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “It involves a certain amount of pride. I mean—Put it this way. No Italian wants to kill himself unless it’s on his own terms.”

  A few paces off to the side now I noticed that there was being enacted a strange, tense, and quiet scene. Here half a dozen people had gathered and were standing in a rough semicircle around a small low chess table and two opposing chairs. On one of the chairs was sitting a sweating, black-haired young Italian; on the other chair sat Carleton Burns: between them on the table they had propped their elbows and—perspiring, panting heavily, their faces crimson from the strain—were locked in a game of handwrestling, Indian-style. As Cripps and I both turned to watch them, I was able for the first time to observe the face of Carleton Burns straight-on, undistracted, and at close range. And what a face it was! Red from exertion (desperately and grimly he strove to press the Italian’s arm to the table), from booze, his face had the complexion now of a ripe tomato, and he snorted with the strain, and allowed a trickle of spit to ooze from a corner of his droopy mouth, so that as I watched his writhing, mobile expression and his inflamed, startlingly homely features—from his eyebrows that sprang up wildly like a satyr’s down to his chin which, as in the mug shots of certain criminal psychopaths I had seen, seemed to melt into his neck—I obtained a rapid series of impressions of the man that began with the sense of something diabolical then ranged to corrupt then to just perversely mean. And as I watched the struggle, as I looked at Burns, who despite all his marks of dissipation seemed to possess a wiry strength, and saw him gradually and with a trembling shudder of his muscles force his opponent’s arm toward the table, I wondered that such an ugly man should have been always cast as a hero and a lover, until I recalled the recent shift in cinematic fashion which had apotheosized the blackguard, the stupid, and the sidewise look of villainy. Suddenly with a thump, triumphant, Burns forced down the Italian’s hand, gasping, “That got you, spaghetti-head.”

  There was a murmur of amusement and approval from the group around them; as the defeated sweating Italian forked over a fistful of lire, Burns gazed around the crowd with a jaunty smirk and with greenish, bloodshot eyes. “Anybody for a little handwrestling?” he said, and belched. “Anybody else want to take on Daddy-O?”

  “You’re too good, Burnsey,” said the Italian as he replaced his wallet with a drained and sheepish look. “You should go into business for yourself. No kidding, Burnsey.”

  “How ’bout getting me another drink, Freddie?” Burns mumbled to someone lingering at his shoulder, a skinny youth with long sideburns and a glassy, sycophantic expression. Turning back to the Italian, he said: “No, Lombardi, you goofed. You got to keep your wrist straight, like I told you. It’s all in the wrist. You can’t get by with any of that shoulder jazz. How about it, anyone? Anyone want to take on Daddy-O at fifty mille lire?”

  A thin, pretty, bespectacled girl dressed in very skimpy shorts looked up from a sheaf of papers she had been studying. “Tell us the secret of your fabulous success, Burnsey, actually,” she said in a wry voice. She looked at him intently and rather sadly.

  “It’s one-third muscle tone and one-third brains and one-third anchestry,” he replied thickly. His benumbed lips scarcely moved. “I’ve got Chippewa blood in me. That’s no jazz. Ask anybody that knows. Good old Chippewa blood, full of crazy red corpuscles. That’s what you skinny chicks need, Maggie. Good old hot … Chippewa … blood.” His chin sank down upon his chest. “Somebody might plug in on your socket every now and then.”

  “Oh shut up,” said the girl, turning pink. She half-rose from the low stool upon which she was sitting, thought better of it, and sat down again with her back turned. “You filthy—”

  “What you need, Maggie”—he belched again—“is a mercy hump.”

  “Just shut up,” she said, with a catch in her voice. Her distress was as transparent as a glass: she was in love with the odious man.

  Burns straightened himself enough to down in one swift gulp the drink that Freddie brought him; then, stretching back in his chair, he looked up at Cripps and grinned. His eyes were filmed and his face was more flushed than ever, and it was a mystery to me how in his soaked condition, Chippewa or not, he had managed to win at his strenuous game. “Hullo, Alonzo. How’s your hammer hanging? I thought you’d gone to bed.”

  “I stayed up so I could watch you,” Cripps said in a level voice, without humor. “I always like to see you when you’re at your most suave.”

  “Want to hand-wrestle for fifty mille lire?”

  “No thanks.”

  “What’s the matter with all you squares? Where the hell is Mason? I want to go swimming in that pool of his.”

  “Why don’t you go to bed?” said Cripps. “You’ve been at it all day. I don’t want a repetition of what happened in Venice. I think it would be a whole lot better all around if you just went to bed. You’ll be dead tomorrow.”

  “Will you for Christ sake please stay off my back, mother? Where the hell is Mason, baby?” he said, looking at Rosemarie. “Daddy-O wants a cool plunge.” Imperceptibly his voice had thickened and he had sunk by degrees down into his chair so that now, his hairy legs asprawl, neck and shoulders almost on the cushion, he was in a position not far from the horizontal. “Where the hell has Mason disappeared to, baby?”

  We looked at Rosemarie. She flushed and stiffened. Her eyes grew wide with some undiscoverable but discomfiting emotion and, as her mouth parted round and hovered voicelessly and wretchedly agape, I realized for the first time that she not only did know where Mason was but had dark private reasons for being silent about it. “Oh, I—well I don’t know,” she stammered. “I mean, I think he went up to the Bella Vista.”

  “Well, tell him to chop-chop down here and take a cool plunge with Daddy-O. He’s about the only one who wears pants around here that’s not a fag. Mason and me. Only ones around here not raving fags. And Freddie. Isn’t that right, Freddie?” he said, craning his neck upward.

  “Well, gee-whiz, I don’t know, Burnsey,” said Freddie, looking warily and apologetically at Cripps.

  “Now as for good old ’Lonzo,” said Burns, gazing up at him with a loose slack-lipped smile. “I’m beginning to think he’s the biggest fruitcake of all. That’s what I think about old ’Lonzo. Recite us some your poetry, ’Lonzo,” he simpered in a high lilting voice. “Play me a tune on the old skin flute. Say, Freddie, go up the hotel and get me my bongo drums. Me and ’Lonzo gonna jive with the old skin flute.”

  I watched Cripps’ expression as Burns continued to bait him; his face wore a look now of faintly amused, faintly weary patience, as if he had been through this many times before, and he squinted at Burns through a blue haze of cigarette smoke with cool slit-eyed nonchalance. It was all in all an impressive portrait of equanimity.

  “C’mon ’Lonzo,” Burns said. “Own up. Come clean. Ain’t you a big frooty-matoot? Gobble my—”

  Without a word Cripps strode over to the place where Burns was sitting, or sprawling, and with one swift jerk of his hand at the folds of Burns’ sport shirt drew him to his feet. He plucked him, I should say, so casual was the motion and so seemingly effortless. Not for an instant did it appear to me that he lost his serene almost gelid composure, and as he spoke to Burns, with his eyes two inches away from those of the actor and blue and level upon him, I could have sworn that he was smiling—a thin smile, to be sure, but a smile. “Look here, Burnsey,” he said softly. “Do you want to know something? I care for you. You’re my pal. Am I penetrating? Am I reaching you? Do you read me?”

  Dazed and confounded by the turn of events Burns tried groggily to reply, but he only managed to run his tongue nervously over his lips.

  “Do you read me, Burnsey?” Cripps repeated.

  “Roger, ’Lonzo,” Burns sai
d finally, with one limp hand raised haphazardly, essaying a salute. “Wilco over and out.” Then swaying there he attempted to say something else, which ended up an incoherent gurgle. I thought for a moment he was going to fall flat on his face. “Read you loud and clear,” he croaked.

  “Well then, fine. Listen to what I’m saying, Daddy-O. I like you. With you I feel a very close bond. I would lay down my life for you, which is more, I suppose, than I could expect in return. I really care for you, you see? But with all of this kinship I feel, there are times when you are disgusting. There are times in fact when you are so surpassingly repellent that it takes all my will power to keep from kicking you in the teeth. This is one of those times. Now you go to bed, hear?”

  “I go to bed, hear,” Burns echoed mesmerically, in a faint voice.

  “That’s right. You go to bed.” He gave Burns a feather-light tap on his chest so that the befogged actor, tottering backwards, half-stumbled, half-fell into the outstretched arms of Freddie. “Put him to bed, Freddie,” he said crisply. “Take his shoes off and put him to bed.”

  Converted in the space of a wink, it seemed, from a tough swaggering hoodlum with a virulent sneer to a faltering and harmless drunk, Burns straightened himself partially, readjusting the drape of his sport shirt with fumbling hands, and once more morosely licked his lips. What looked like tears had welled up in his eyes, although this may have been only his habitual rheum. “OP buddy ’Lonzo,” he said. “Sonofabitch. OP mother. Love ya. Love ya, Daddy-O.”

  “Go to bed,” said Cripps more gently. “Go to bed, pal.”

  “Sorry, Daddy-O,” he mumbled. “Didn’t mean—” But then he stopped, utterly at sea. Freddie turned him slowly about. Contrite, vanquished, mumbling unintelligibly and swaying top-heavy on Freddie’s supporting arm, he lurched off across the room. Somewhere in the spacious distance I saw Dawn O’Donnell break loose from the wall and intercept them. “Burnsey darling!” I heard her exclaim as she took his arm. Then the three figures, weaving like skaters across the glassy floor, were lost to sight.

  For me the whole tense little tableau had been rather hollow and disappointing. I don’t know just what else I expected but it did seem to me remarkable that Burns—so resourceful, so quickwitted in his professional roles—had been reduced to such shambling debris before my very eyes. In any case, I had little time to reflect on this matter, for a murmurous message had run through the gathering: everybody was going swimming. Turning round toward the window I saw the swimming pool, set like a huge and sparkling amethyst in the garden below, looking for all the world as if it graced some lawn in California and shining splendidly from a host of floodlights. Casually then, in twos and threes, still clutching their drinks, the guests drifted out from the room—fair Alice Adair escorted by the crew-cut young man, Baer and Rosemarie and all the rest, and Gloria Mangiamele, giggling, superbly undulant, her arm entwined about the waist of Burns’ demolished Italian. I had more than half a craving to see Gloria in a bathing suit but I was still a little tired, determinedly a non-swimmer; besides, I felt hardly close enough to these people to manage an awkward word or two, much less to splash about with them in the intimacy of a pool; and so I contented myself with another drink, which I poured into my glass at the empty bar, feeling lonesome and abandoned as I listened to the bright noise of hilarity floating up from the bathhouse down the slope. After a moment’s indecision I wandered out through a French door to the open balcony, where I thought I would watch the scene, and it was here beneath a dim orange lamp that I re-encountered Alonzo Cripps. He was standing alone at the railing.

  “That’s a remarkable sight, isn’t it?” he said, gesturing toward the sea as I came toward him. Far down upon the gulf a fleet of fishing boats lay spread out upon the black surface of the night; invisible itself, each boat bore a dazzling light to summon the fish, so that now lying suspended between the dark water and the moonless and darker sky the whole collection of lights, twinkling there so serenely, had the appearance of a constellation of fat and vivacious stars. There was an immense silence and peace about these lovely hovering lights, and a hypnotic charm. Without taking his eyes from them, Cripps offered me a cigarette. “I never cease to be fascinated by those lights,” he said, “whenever you’re lucky enough to get a black night like this, so that the boats really do look like stars. Wonderful! I remember seeing them when I first came here during the war. The Army had a rest camp up here for a while, you know. I remember that I told myself that I would come back here, if only to see these lights again. They have an amazing floating unearthly quality, don’t they?”

  “They’re marvelous,” I agreed.

  “Pretty dreary scene back there,” he said without altering the tone of his voice, which was wistful and rather fatigued and stopped just short, it seemed to me, of actual melancholy. “I hope it wasn’t too dreary. I’m sorry, what did you say your name was again?”

  When I told him, he said: “You were the oddest sort of apparition, you know. Pale as a ghost, dressed like a mortician in the midst of this raunchy crowd. I thought for a while you must have been an acolyte of that old humbug, Bell, until it occurred to me that you were this friend of Mason’s. And then I was really astonished. Have you known Mason long?”

  “All my life, practically,” I said. “Well, not really all my life,” I added. “I was at prep school with him near my home in Virginia. Then for a while after the war I saw him in New York. But there’s something about Mason that makes you feel you’ve known him forever, even when you don’t see much of him.”

  “I know just what you mean,” he said. “God, I know just what you mean. Where in the world—” But he broke off suddenly, wagging his head. There had been more than a trace of sarcasm in his voice. I was puzzled a little, and I could not figure out why he had fallen into this silence, leaving me stranded upon the edge of a small mystery, unless it had been because he had suddenly realized the discourtesy involved in running down Mason, who, after all, was his host. Even so, he was unable to resist hinting at something about Mason—whatever it was—that was bothering him. “I mean,” he resumed slowly, “I mean—well, he’s a weird boy. He’s altogether different from the kid I remember down in Virginia.”

  “How do you mean?” I said.

  He seemed not to have heard the question or, if he had, chose to ignore it. “Did you ever go to the Flagg place on the river there?” he said. “What a beautiful place it was. I used to go down every now and then before the war, before old Justin died. What a hard cookie he was. But a good man, really, and I guess I should be forever grateful to him. Actually, in spite of that grim little soldierboy act he had quite decent instincts. Did you know him?”

  “Well, I used to sort of see him,” I said.

  “He suffered, you know. I mean, really suffered, not the imitation sort of anguish you usually get in this business. He was ruthless in his way but there was an odd side of him that was really quite highly principled. Almost puritanical when you come right down to it. I guess that’s the reason he never got a divorce. He really suffered over that. Mason ever tell you what became of his mother? Wendy?”

  “I haven’t seen him enough to talk to him since I’ve been here,” I said. “The last I heard she was still lushing it up down on the farm.”

  “Pathetic woman,” he sighed. “Christ, what misery liquor can cause! I should know. Even though it’s really the symptom, you know, not the disease. I suppose it’s simply that our disease is more—pandemic now, which is why you see such a fantastic going to pot. Especially among Americans, I mean. The disease being … what? You tell me. A general wasting away of quality, a kind of sleazy common prostration of the human spirit. Like Burnsey there—a really sensitive decent guy beneath it all, and very close to a great actor. Yet what does he do? In his mid-thirties, just when an artist should be hitting his stride, achieving maturity, he sinks into this idiotic infantilism. He becomes a hipster. A juvenile delinquent. A dirty-mouth little boy.” He paused, then said:
Ah God, I don’t know how we’re going to finish this—I was about to say film.” Then he fell silent.

  Below us now the guests were converging on the pool. Some were clad in Bikinis; some were more conventionally decked out, including that fastidious snoop, Morton Baer, who wore no bathing suit at all but shuffled about in his flannel suit at the edge of the pool and puffed on a cigar. There was laughter, a constant chatter rose in English and Italian, and no one went into the pool; beneath a spangled cluster of beach umbrellas they had all disposed themselves at tables, attended by the solitary harried waiter. Crazed by the strange blue light, half a dozen moths the size of small bats swooped and flickered, casting their freakish shadows over all. I kept my eyes on Mangiamele, who was practically naked and had commenced to lacquer her toenails.

  At this moment a huge explosion rent the air behind us in the salone. It was not an explosion, but it sounded like one: as Cripps and I jumped, then wheeled quickly about—both I think expecting to see fallen plaster and a cloud of smoke—we saw only that the huge front doors had been slammed violently open against the walls. Both doors were still vibrating. In front of them stood Cass Kinsolving. He was drunk. Drunk is hardly the word. He was about as drunk as one could get and still stand up—beside him Burns would have appeared a teetotaler—and as he came toward us, his hand clawing at the chairs for support, he wore an expression of such desuetude and abandonment of thought that it was like no expression, and I could have sworn that he had only the dimmest notion of where he was, and what he was doing, and where he was headed. A ripped and dirty T-shirt—it was Marine Corps issue, a faded green—exposed his powerful shoulders, but there was something sluggishly decrepit about his progress across the room that made him appear sick, depleted, as if he had left the last ounce of his strength in the courtyard below. At one point I thought he was going to pitch forward across a sofa. And I was surprised when, finally lurching over to the balcony where we were standing, he said thickly but with more clarity than ever I thought such a drunken man could muster: “Hello, Leverett. How’s the guy you hit today making out?”

 

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