Set this house on fire, p.18
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       Set This House on Fire, p.18
 

           William Styron

  “Oh, she’s fine. She tried to go on the wagon after the old man died. I guess you heard about him. She goes on and off, poor thing, but I haven’t had to give her the cure for months and months. Chloral hydrate and Cream of Wheat. You know, it’s a funny thing. You know how she used to absolutely loathe Merryoaks? Well, after the old man went to his reward, as they say, you couldn’t get her away from there, absolutely fell in love with the place. Sits down there and slurps Old Crow all by herself, and rides around on this big horse. My wife and I—you’ll meet the wife—anyway, we were down there last week end. It’s the biggest goddam horse you ever saw. And off she goes, loping down the riverbank, with this new boy friend she’s got. He’s a seventy-year-old Belgian and he’s gotten her all interested in something called Zen. I think they shoot arrows at each other. Jesus sake, Petesy,” he chuckled, wiping foam from his lips, “I don’t know who’s sleeping with who down there. I think the horse is getting the best part of it.” He began to shake and tremble with quiet interior laughter. “Ah Jesus,” he sighed, “Petesy, it’s great to see you again. I knew if I ran into you at all it’d be in a purgatory of the spirit like this. You know, Wendy still asks about you all the time. She had a real sneaker for you, you know? I think it must have been because you kept your mouth shut. She was so sick and tired of the old man. He kept yowling into her ear all the time, trying to smoke out her psyche, no wonder she took to the sauce. Poor Wendy,” he said, with a sudden wistful look, “I’ll have to get her up here so she can see you. What with that spooky Belgian and that horse and all that sauce she’ll end up for certain in some laughing academy.

  “Anyway,” he went on, “that’s beside the point.” He was not drunk (although he liked drinking, I recalled that even as a boy he was not particularly addicted to it, which always struck me as a noteworthy deliverance) but a bright hilarity burbled up in his voice, and his eyes were twinkly and agitated. “What I was telling that guy last night is that of all the dozens of little schoolmates I ever had there was only one I’d walk around the corner to see again. And then I mentioned your name—old Petesy—and I wondered what you were doing. It’s fantastic! It’s pure clairvoyance. So what are you doing? Tell me.” But before I could pop my mouth open to reply he was tugging at my sleeve. “The love of my life,” he was saying. “Come over here and meet her.”

  I remember my surprise at the idea of Mason’s being married, and I studied the girl—a slow-stirring blonde named Carole who gave me a warmed-over smile and kept displaying her handsome bosom in a sort of habitual shrug of weariness. In the booth beside her sat a red-haired, blanched, unwell-looking young couple in blue jeans—I think they were called the Pennypackers—who like a pair of caged foxes stared up at me out of the gloom, fixing me with their feral, glittering eyes. They made no word of greeting, but doted on Mason in a conversation thick with small yaps and noises of innuendo—about a week end at Provincetown and someone named Gus and someone named Wally—and finally, when they got up to go, Mason lent them ten dollars from an enormous bankroll (I thought it must have been a lapse, for even as a boy he had never been so graceless as to be ostentatious about his cash), upon which they battened their little aqueous, lashless eyes in one brief hot glance of conspiratorial greed before slipping out into the night. I recall wondering how these two, who seemed so down-at-the-heel and uninspired, had come to be Mason’s friends, but even before I could begin tentatively to pump him, he had answered my question, saying: “He’s in Theater”—he capitalized the noun—“he hasn’t got a cent and he’s a terrible ass but he reads scripts for the Playwrights’ Company. He’s got the first act of this play I’m writing. If they don’t do it I’m almost certain Whitehead will put it on next year, once I get it finished. It’s that second act that’s such a ball-breaker. Did you catch those two? Funny thing is—did you notice?—they look exactly alike. I really think she’s his sister. And she’s the weirdest one in the act. Jesus, I’d love to see them in action. I bet it’s like trying to stuff a marshmallow into a piggy bank.”

  None of Mason’s drolleries were lost on Carole, who punctuated his talk with throaty little commas of mirth and giggles which she employed without stint whenever he opened his mouth. She was a hefty, good-looking girl with milky skin and a rich, contralto, barrelhouse voice and elliptical green eyes that mirrored almost nothing save an imperturbably confident passion. She looked openminded and procreative, a soft acquiescent woman, dimly in love. Her raucous voice betrayed her—it was pure Greenpoint—depressing me about Mason’s taste in mates, though I couldn’t help feeling a bachelor’s itch and envy over what he had acquired otherwise.

  “Darling, you fracture me,” she giggled. “ ’Di’ve another Scotch onna rocks?”

  “Actually, these Village dives aren’t exactly my dish of tea,” said Mason, ignoring her, “but it’s good for spasmodic kicks, you know, to see the pseudo-intellectual riffraff in operation.”

  He squeezed my arm. “We’re goofing off, you know. There’s a big brawl going on at my place. It’s been swinging ever since last night. Come on, let’s go.” Outside he steadied Carole at the curb. It was a sultry Manhattan night, its stars drowned in a fragile penumbra of neon, its presence odorous with asphalt and drains and a bouquet of gardenias, borne in the hands of a frayed old peddler, floating up to us from the dark. “Baby, do you want something from Max Schling here? The kid’s bobo for flowers,” he murmured to me as, fumblingly, she pinned them to her breast, “and, frankly, it’s her only aesthetic indulgence. Anyway, as I was saying, it’s good for kicks, Peter. These people are such flaneurs. Jesus Christ, I may not be any Cocteau or Brecht yet, but at least I’m serious.” He whistled up a cab. “Come on, let’s get back to the studio.”

  Mason’s apartment—“studio,” rather—perched five floors above the street in one of the frowzier nooks of the Village, was the only New York dwelling I have ever seen which successfully combined a garrety, blue jean-and-sneaker attitude toward art with real luxury. It was a lofty, cavernous place which had been the property of a once well-known but now forgotten portrait painter. Much of it—the peeling skylight and hideous mahogany paneling —Mason had left as he had found it, but the rest—wall-to-wall carpeting nearly bottomless to the tread, hidden lighting and elegant Chinese bric-a-brac, a Calder mobile and three Modiglianis and yard after yard of fine editions—he had furbished himself with great style so that the effect, after panting upward for so many shabby, cabbage-smelling flights, was not of the drab ordinariness of the atelier one had expected, but of a sudden, rich, and luminescent paradise. One anticipated such a place, say, on Beekman Hill, but not here; it was as if a maharajah had taken over a flat somewhere in Queens. With his surpassing flair for the impossible gesture, Mason had fused Beverly Hills and Bohemia: in that dulcet, insinuating light one felt that one could share the lives of the immeasurably fortunate, yet never lose the echo of the rowdy street below, out of which rose, night after night, the muffled tunes of a caterwauling juke box and all the tough, sad accents of Sodom.

  That evening the place was jammed with people but soon after we arrived, Mason—disengaging himself from Carole, who by now was quite hopelessly drunk—pushed me toward a rear bedroom, closed and locked the door and, turning round to face me, said with a warm grin: “Now we can catch up on old times, Petesy boy.” Perhaps it was the firm bolting of the door but I recall how, even then, the flicker of a dark suspicion passed through my mind, and vanished as quickly as it had come. Being a fairly inwardlooking person, and one carefully attuned to the psychiatric overtones in this age, I have often wondered whether there was not something homosexual in our connection, in my attraction to Mason. I think this has bothered me mainly because I am an American, and Americans are troubled by the notion that the slightly fevered excitement, the warmth they might feel in the presence of a friend of the same sex portend all sorts of unspeakable desires. That is why, when Frenchmen kiss or embrace without shame and Italians, long-parted, rush baying into eac
h other’s arms, an American is reduced to a greeting not far removed from a sneer and a sadistic wallop between the shoulder blades. However, in regard to the allure Mason held for me, I have re-examined it from all angles and have found it tainted enough, but not flawed by that complication. I think I simply felt when I was near him that he was more imaginative, more intelligent than I, and at the same time more corrupt (more corrupt, that is, than I could allow myself to be, as much as I tried), so that while he kept me hugely entertained he yet permitted me, in the ease of my humdrum and shallow rectitude, to feel luckier than Mason—duller but luckier, and sometimes superior.

  That night he was at the top of his form. We compared notes on the years since we had last seen each other, but it took only a few moments to cover my own drab career. Mason, however, had lived —and I suspected with a dash granted to only a very few young men during the war; his story, to one who had seen only Illinois prairies, like myself, was fascinating, for he had been a member of the O.S.S. “Oh really, Petesy, I would rather have done time in Leavenworth than been drafted. And gobble K-rations next to some cretin from Opelika, Alabama? Really, Peter—don’t frown—we do have to preserve some aristocracy of the spirit.” It had been a difficult stunt to promote because of his college debacle, but one which Wendy, who had known a producer who had known a General Something-or-Other at the Pentagon, had expedited shortly after his return from Princeton. “Wendy-dear,” he said pensively. “She didn’t want me to go at all, of course, but she was positively adamant about one thing: she was determined that I get into some outfit where everybody brushed their teeth, even though she had heard that a lot of them were fags.”

  And then he told a spine-chilling tale about his experiences: about the government school, first, that he attended near Baltimore (I had heard about it somewhere) and its incredible curriculum in which neophytes like himself, in order to test their stealth and cunning, were among other things made to break into heavily guarded military installations in the dead of night, or to purloin top-secret blueprints from the shipyard of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, or, at high noon, with false mustache and eyeglasses and bogus identity badge, to waltz past the guards at the Glenn L. Martin aircraft plant and, once inside, with the furtive skill implanted in their minds at school, to set token bombs and sabotaging booby traps in the intestines of some highly classified and vital machine, before reporting back to their superiors with a key nut or bolt or a crucial cotter-pin, or even—as once in Mason’s case—with the nameplate of some factory vice-president, as evidence of the success of their mission. “Well frankly,” he said with a laugh, “it was a hell of a lot of fun playing spy. Call it cloak-and-dagger stuff, whatever you want, it really had its—I mean, colossal moments of excitement. Of course there—at the Division Institute—that was the official name but to the public then it had no name at all, in fact it didn’t even exist—we didn’t run any real risk. We had what they call a ‘check agent’ in every installation we planned to knock over; that is, there was always somebody, usually an F.B.I, man, planted there in some sort of security capacity who knew what was going on. At least he knew that the D.I. was running a speed-job that day—we called these raids speed-jobs—so that if you bungled the mission and got nabbed he could at least step in and spirit you out of there.” He paused, a ruminative expression on his flushed face, and then began to shake with a kind of tickled, anticipatory laughter. “Oh Jesus, though, some guys really had a rough time of it. There was this little fellow named Heinz Mayer, a funny little German refugee who had been living in Buffalo. He had practically no English at all anyway but he was a raving patriot and would have done anything, I think, to get to spit on the Fatherland. Anyway, they sent him on this solo speed-job into an antiaircraft installation—No it wasn’t; I remember now, it was the Naval Ordnance Depot down at Dahlgren on the Potomac. Anyway, what happened was that this check agent, this poor benighted F.B.I. man had been stricken with something—I don’t know what, appendicitis, a coronary, something—at any rate he was not there, not on hand when this poor little Heinz got caught snooping around in some building where they were assembling some kind of secret new timing device for eight-inch shells. Oh Jesus,” he chuckled, “I can hear him now, telling us about it: ‘But dere I vass,’ he said, ‘dese Marines, dey tought I vass Chermann! Dey vould not believe me ven I said dot I vass American, Heinz Mayer from Buffalo, New York. Und I vaited und I vaited for mein shack agent to come und save me but he vould not come!’ Oh God,” said Mason, “it cracked us up listening to him. I think those Marines were about to give him bastinado with rifle-butts but he got out of there somehow… .”

  It was a lively imitation of the harried little German—complete with baffled, cringing gestures. I found myself laughing uproariously. “Well, what then, Mason?” I said finally.

  He seemed reluctant to add anything more; his face became sober and grave, and he guided the conversation around to the play he was working on, to Broadway, and to playwrighting. Yet I was subtly insistent: the intrigue and derring-do of espionage have always been fascinating to me, and I wanted to hear more. “Well, Peter, it’s not all you might have thought,” he said. “Like the Army or anything else it was mainly a matter of beastly—I mean, really incessant—boredom. Jesus, I’d like to have a nickel for each of the dead, dead hours I spent sitting on my ass doing nothing but waiting. In Cairo it got so bad, I swear to God, that I got to know every crack in the wall and every bump and every knothole in the bar at Shepheard’s Hotel. Waiting on your ass, waiting on your ass until Franklin and Winston cooked up a big deal—and you know it’s all based not on strategy, but on some lousy political nuance—a big deal to save some poor, half-strangulated partisan somewhere.” And so, since so much of the work of the Strategic Services had been paralyzed by inertia, he had managed to go on only one mission, parachuting along with a Serb-American Army corporal behind German lines in Yugoslavia in an effort to discover first-hand the extent of the partisan leader Mikhailovitch’s collaboration with the Axis forces. “It’s amazing,” he put in suddenly, “talking to people—I mean even, say, British G-2 officers who’ve done a lot of tough hush-hush stuff and should know better—how everyone thinks of the O.S.S. as filled with brawny supermen who speak seven languages and are adept at judo and are forever prowling some really terror-ridden landscape with a knife between their teeth. Honest to God, Peter, nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t mean to say that there wasn’t some risk. I mean simply parachuting out into black space at night is no joy. It was the only jump I ever made and by God you can have it. But otherwise, really, as far as the blood-and-thunder goes, practically all of it’s in the movies.”

  And he described how, after floating to earth near the town of Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian Coast, he holed up in the seaside villa of a Serb named Plaja in the confidential pay of the Allies—“a terrific old barrel-chested guy,” Mason described him, “who’d been educated at Cambridge and had made an incredible fortune exporting slivovitz"—and there for a couple of months lived the life of a total idler, since inauspiciously at that moment Mikhailovitch had shifted his roving guerrilla headquarters to a point far up in the mountains to the east, where, because of the German troops interposed between, he was beyond reach. “We tried to make contact with the pro-Tito operatives we knew were working undercover with Mikhailovitch,” Mason went on, “but it just wasn’t any go. Stancik—that was Jack Stancik, my Serb corporal from Toledo, a wonderful little guy, hard as nails, who used to be a circus acrobat—Stancik and I tried to poke through the lines a couple of times but the Krauts were really out for blood and the place was hemmed-in like chicken-wire.” So, instead of establishing any sort of liaison with the Tito agents, Mason lolled in prodigal comfort at Plaja’s villa, drenched in the sunshine of the Dalmatian spring, swimming by night out to the cypress-groved islets which dotted the shore, and guzzling slivovitz, the plum-flavored brandy of which Plaja, its chief entrepreneur, served only the most succulent vintages.
“Jesus Christ, Peter,” he suddenly burst out, “that was the part that was out of the movies. It was unbelievable. Nazis wandering around everywhere. Here I was literally yards from death, but having the time of my life. And then to cap everything, about five or six days after I’d been installed there, Plaja’s daughter came on the scene, this magnificent little black-haired dish—she was just fourteen—with these black saucy eyes and ripe red saucy lips set into a fabulous clear olive complexion that the Yugoslavians in that part of the country have. And these terrific hard little breasts like young melons, and a wonderful soft bouncy little tail to go along with it all. I almost blew my top just looking at her, after having subsisted—and I mean subsist—off these old fungusy Cairo whores for so long. She couldn’t speak a word of English but we got along in a sort of pig-French—anyway, to make that part of a long story short: we made goo-goo eyes for a while—old Plaja didn’t care; I think he approved of me handsomely, and besides he was always out falconing, which seems to be the favorite divertissement of flush Yugoslavians—and then one night after a lot of preliminary billing and cooing and bellyrubbing we swam out to this little island offshore. Honest to God, the smell of cypresses out there, and plum blossoms—it was heady and sexual enough to make you want to positively retch with excitement. Neither of us had bathing suits, so that when we came out dripping onto this moonlit beach we were as naked as a couple of goldfish. It was her first time, Petesy, but you’d never know it. She just gave a little whimper and melted. It was like taking ice cream from a baby.” And this idyll, he said, lasted for weeks. I was ravished by the picture he drew. So much so that I think I was hardly irritated by his childish descriptions of all the “specialties” he had taught her—they can be found in any marriage primer—or even disturbed, while he went doggedly on about “these little jawbreaking yelps of passion,” in my vision drawn straight from his eloquence, of looming threat, of plum blossoms and soaring falcons, and cypress-scented seas.

 
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