Set this house on fire, p.26
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       Set This House on Fire, p.26

           William Styron

  Cass interrupted him with another groan from the couch. “Come off it, Luigi. My heart bleeds for you as ever. But I’ve got real troubles. I’ve got to get sober. Poppy!” he yelled. “Hurry up with that coffee!” He rolled over on his side, blinking up at the policeman. “What time did you say it was? I’ve got bugs in my head.”

  “After two o’clock, Cass,” said Luigi. “I was up by the hotel. There’s some cinema equipment outdoors that I’m supposed to keep an eye on. You know these peasants from the valley; they’d dismantle a steamboat and haul it away, give them the time and the opportunity. Anyway, I heard the glorious strains of Mozart, very loud, coming from the palace, and I knew you were up. So I came for a chat, and what did I find?” He spread his arms wide. “Nothing. You gone. Poppy gone. The bambini gone. Only the record machine going ss-put, ss-put, ss-put! I shut it off, and sat down to watch after the other two children. It wasn’t like you to leave the machine on like that. You’ll ruin Don Giovanni that way.”

  Cass eased himself up and sat on the edge of the couch, looking woozily around him. “Thanks, Luigi,” he said. “You’re a prince. Jesus, I really saw a big vacuum there for a while. A big fantastic vacuum. You could hear me all the way to the hotel? It’s a wonder Sergeant Parrinello himself wasn’t down on me.” He shook his head violently, as if to clear it of the obstructing shadows. I sensed a battle and a struggle: he seemed, very gradually, to be emerging from the shrouds of his drunkenness, like a beleaguered swimmer hauling himself up inch by inch onto the dry safeguarding shore. He shook his head again, then banged it with the flat of his hand, as if dislodging water from his ears. “Let me think,” he said, then more loudly: “Let me think! What have I got to do?” His eyes caught mine and he gave a start: I think he had forgotten about my presence entirely. “Well,” he said in English with a smile, “old man Leverett. By God, I think I owe you something, although what,” he added, taking off his glasses and massaging his weary, red-rimmed eyes, “what, and for what, and how much I have no way of telling.” He got up, his arm outstretched to shake my hand, but stumbled on one of the unnumbered nameless objects littering the floor and, collapsing back onto the bed again, began to cough hoarsely and in racking spasms. “Questi sigari italiani!” he howled at Luigi between fits of coughing. “What are they made of, these cigars! Dung of goats! Excrement of priests! Luigi, I tell you—hack! hack!—I’ve got to be x-rayed. I’m turning to mush inside—hack!—the way I torment my poor old bag of guts! Sober me up, for the love of God! I’ve got things to do!”

  “Povero Cass,” Luigi breathed sympathetically, “why do you persist still in drowning yourself, abusing yourself, annihilating yourself? Why don’t you take a pill and go to sleep?”

  I scrutinized Luigi in the dim light. He was a well-built, neatly barbered young man, not unhandsome despite a tendency to beetle brows and an expression, common to cops everywhere, of dogged, almost prayerful humorlessness. Frowning down at Cass, he looked tired and discontented: cops the world over are underpaid, but where the blue eyes of a New York policeman are often terrifying, and those of a Parisian spiteful and hysteric, the eyes of an Italian carabiniere reflect only a ceaseless, calm, melancholy yearning for money, which is possibly the reason why, more than a policeman almost anywhere else, he is constantly being bribed. “Why do you persist on this dangerous course, Cass?” he said. “Haven’t I been trying to impress on you for months the terrible hazards of this way of life of yours? Don’t you know that the consequences may very well prove fatal? Don’t you know that the trouble in your stomach is no longer a laughing matter? And without, I hope, sounding too pompous, may I ask you whether in your heart of hearts you have really pictured to yourself the whole horrible vista of eternity?”

  “Gesù Cristo!” I heard Cass moan. “An Italian Calvinist!”

  Luigi looked at me mournfully, briefly, the expression that of a doctor who has just divined the worst. “No, Cass,” he went on to the supine figure, still racked with coughs, “no, my dear friend, I am not a religious man, as you all too well know—”

  “You’re a Fascist, which is no better,” Cass replied in a tempered, casual voice. “How could you be a Fascist, Luigi?”

  “I’m not a religious man,” Luigi went on, ignoring him, “and this you well know. However, I studied among the humanist philosophers—the Frenchman Montaigne, Croce, the Greek Plato, not to speak, of course, of Gabriele D’Annunzio—and if there’s one thing of the highest value I’ve discovered, it is simply this: that the primary moral sin is self-destruction—the wish for death which you so painfully and obviously manifest. I exclude madness, of course. The single good is respect for the force of life. Have you not pictured to yourself the whole horrible vista of eternity? I’ve told you all this before, Cass. The absolute blank-ness, il niente, la nullità, stretching out for ever and ever, the pit of darkness which you are hurling yourself into, the nothingness, the void, the oblivion? Yet are you unable to see that although this in itself is awful, it is nothing to the moral sin you commit by willing yourself out of that life-force so celebrated by D’Annun-zio, and by willing thus, to doom your wife and children to the hell of fatherlessness, to the unspeakable—”

  “Luigi, you’re a crackpot,” Cass said in an offhand tone, getting to his feet. “I love you like a brother—” He turned to me with a grin, planting, at the same time, his big hand on Luigi’s shoulder. He was still as high as a kite, and he swayed a bit, but he had lost that distant look of oblivion which had been all over his face during the fiasco upstairs. “He’s really a great fellow, Lever-ett,” he said, still in Italian. “Why don’t you two shake hands, you two intellectuals?” Gravely, and with a polite dignified bow, Luigi took my outstretched hand. “Imagine a lovely fellow who’s a Fascist! And a humanist! Did you ever hear of anything so absurd in your life? Look at him—a Fascist! And he wouldn’t hurt a little bird!”

  “I’m no one’s weakling,” Luigi said stiffly.

  “Of course you’re not,” Cass said, gouging him amiably in the ribs. “Of course you’re not, my friend. But you’re a crackpot. You shouldn’t be an Italian cop, making next to nothing in a little miserable town in Campania, getting corns all over your feet. You should take off that uniform and go to Southern California. You’d make millions! Luigi Migliore, Consultant in Humanist Philosophy! With your looks you’d make a treasure, besides getting all the loving you could possibly handle. Why all those crazy, desiccated, brainless women would be over you like grease. You’d have an office, and a couch, and you could get one of those beautiful dumb California blondes on the couch and gabble to her about that noble humanist philospher, Gabriele D’Annunzio, and the whole horrible vista of eternity, and in about two seconds you’d be up to your groin—pardon me—in love, you’d—”

  “It’s tasteless to joke about such matters,” Luigi said bleakly. “Besides, as you know, I have no desire to go to America. I’m earnestly worried about you, Cass.”

  “Sciocchezze!” Cass said, throwing up his hands. “I never heard such nonsense in my life. All Italians want to go to America. All of them! Why don’t you break down and admit it, Luigi? You love America. You adore it! Don’t try to fool Uncle Cass.”

  “I should prefer not to talk about it,” Luigi replied, frowning. “And I see no point in remaining here if it’s your scheme in mind to make me out a fool. You try my patience, Cass. You protest your friendship but you joke too much. I attempt constantly to be your friend, because I’ve felt that you and I are fellow spirits.” He paused and shrugged. “I’ve simply been trying to help, and you make jokes.”

  “I know it, Luigi, I know it,” said Cass. “I’m a hopeless drunk on the skids, and I need a helping hand. I love you like a brother. You’ve been my shield and defender, besides drinking up all my vermouth. But please don’t babble on about the horrible vista of eternity. How in God’s name do you know what eternity is like? You’re just trying to scare me, Luigi.”

  “Eternity is horrible to cont
emplate,” he said without humor. “Nullità, oscurità, like never-ending snow. That is my conception of it. A dark whiteness—”

  “What absurdity, Luigi! Suppose I told you why dying was good? Suppose I told you that eternity was a soft quiet place, with grass and rocks and running water, and blue sky above, and sheep in the fields, and the sound of pipes and tinkling bells? Suppose I told you, my dear friend, that eternity was not too unlike the lovely little village of Tramonti back in the valley, which you so ignore and despise? Suppose I told you that eternity was like slaking one’s thirst in a spring of waters that comes down from the snows of the Apennines, where one may lie under the cedars and see all the sweet girls dancing and capering far off on a sunny lawn, and lie there, in endless serenity and repose? Suppose I told you that? What would you think, Luigi? Would I be right or would you? Would you believe me?”

  “I would think,” said Luigi, solemn as an owl, “I would think that you would be indulging in middle-class romanticism. You would be telling me a mawkish fable. As D’Annunzio says, ‘All life is here and now—’”

  “Vero, Luigi! I do believe you’re right. But let’s cease this feverish chatter. I have things to do yet. You distract me from becoming sober. Hey, Poppy!” he yelled again over his shoulder. “Porta il caffè, subito! E due aspirine!” He turned to me with a slow grin, continuing casually, almost unconsciously, in that limpid, flowing Italian at which he seemed to be as enviably adept as at his native tongue. “I can only offer you a glass of Sambuco rosso,” he said, adding, “my wine steward absconded with the keys and left us clean out of Jack Daniel’s.”

  “No thanks,” I said in American, “but I could do with some coffee and a couple of those aspirins.”

  “Quattro aspirine!” he roared at Poppy. Then, sitting down on the couch once more, his shoulders lurching unsteadily, he proceeded to go about uncorking a bottle of red wine. Luigi regarded him sadly and soberly. “I have to be going back to my giro, Cass. I find myself greatly upset at leaving you in this condition. Are you proposing now to drink another whole bottle of wine? I think you’re mad.” He put his cap on his head and made a slow move toward the door. “Now I think you’re mad. I find it impossible to deal with madmen. They will surely take you to Salerno and put you in the lunatic asylum. And everyone will be grievously sorry —except no doubt yourself. But there’s nothing more that I can do. Buonanotte.” And with a lingering, dismal, hangdog expression he drifted out through the doorway, popping his head back in for one last minatory utterance: “I have seen the madhouse in Salerno with my own eyes. I have seen it, Cass. It surpasses anything you can imagine. It is medieval,” Then he was gone.

  “Wonderful guy,” Cass said, struggling with the cork. “Should be a lawyer in Naples or something, instead of a hick cop, but I guess he’s too much of a nut. You never saw such a weird mind. Imagine! A Fascist humanist! I’ll tell you about him sometime. Also a mystic. Jesus!” He uncorked the bottle with a pop. “Have a shot of Sambuco rosso”

  “No thanks,” I said, “I’ll stick with that coffee.” I paused. “Why don’t you lay off it for a while, Cass?” I said as offhandedly as possible. “After all, you said yourself you wanted to dry out, you had things to do …”

  He gazed long at the bottle and at the floor, then looked up at me with an ingratiating smile. He hesitated; several flies began to make a drowsy, buzzing sortie around our heads. “Well by God,” he said finally, “you know, you couldn’t be righter. A bleeding sweet guardian angel, that’s what you are. Come down from the heavens to deliver poor old Cass from the gorge of the predacious nobby anthropoid. To deliver from his wan lips this cup of—” He looked at the bottle sourly and bitterly. “Of poison.” Suddenly he heaved the bottle away across the room; falling unbroken, miraculously, among the litter on the floor, it left a long splash of crimson against the wall. “I never did that in my life before.” He chuckled. Then he flopped back on the couch and with his khaki-clad legs in the air began to howl in English and in Italian. “Brutto maiale! The filthy dog! God give me strength, give me fortitude! Mother-defiling jackal! God make my hand strong!” He commenced to shudder and hack at the same time, horribly, and raised one big muscular fist toward the ceiling. “Vigliacco! Masturbator of small children! Putrescent shark! Oh Jesus, give me strength! Jesus! Is there no justice? Must I be deprived of wealth and wit and sanity and pride, and then be deprived of guts! Jesus love me!” he roared as if in entreaty to the heavens. “Is there no way to down the slummocky obscene swine? Is there no way, Lord! Ah my my, give me the guts to face him down and I’ll drag him by his moldy balls through the new Jerusalem!” Abruptly he ceased and lay back with a tremendous shudder and a sigh. Then after a spell of silence he said with a groan, and in a leaden stricken voice which had no longer any exuberance in it, or humor, but only the pure accents of despair: “Somebody’s dying, Leverett. Somebody’s dying and I’ve got to help. I’ve got to be sober enough to be a clever thief.” He paused for a moment, and while I tried to figure out what he was getting at I heard his breath going in and out in a husky agitated whistle. “I hate to put you out. You’ve been a prince. But somebody’s dying. And I don’t mean me. No bullshit, boy. This is a heavy matter. If you could—if you would sort of deal with me and smack me around or something, and give me a shot of something, and help fix me so I could—so I could burglarize this item, I’d be eternally grateful. I’ve got to steady up, boy. You’ve done a noble—” At this moment Poppy in her sleazy kimono, still coifed in unsightly curlers, rustled through the door with a potful of coffee.

  “Well, Cass Kinsolving,” she said with a scowl, “will you please finally just quit hollering like an elephant or something and go to bed?” She set down two cups before us and poured the coffee; on the surface of mine I saw rising one of her blond hairs. “You’re the limit, Cass,” she said as she swished about. “The very limit! Getting drunk over and over again and letting Mason shame and humiliate you like that. And now you’re keeping the children awake! Why don’t you try to be nice for a while?” As she fetched a sugar bowl and a shriveled-up lemon from the cluttered sideboard, I studied her charming little face. Even in curlers and with cold cream in shiny gloss upon her cheeks she was like a sprite, touchingly, unelaborately lovely and slightly wild; there was something about her both unearthly and demure: she looked as if she might have flitted out of a wood. “And you use your awful words,” she went on. “When you get this way. I’ve been trying to teach the children proper English and proper Italian and you use those terrible words. Not to even speak,” she added, her nostrils flaring angrily, “of the name of Our Father. Jiminy, Cass! Don’t you see what it can do to their psychology!” She threw two orange-colored pellets onto the table.

  “What are these?” Cass inquired unhappily.

  “Baby aspirin,” she said. “That’s all there is. It’s from that bottle Mason got us—Oh, that terrible person!”

  “Lord God,” he said with a groan, thrusting his face into his hands. “Lord God, Poppy, why don’t you minister to me! I’ve got a headache!” He looked up at her briefly and dizzily; then he looked at me, as if calling upon me to witness his affliction. He shook his head and slurped noisily at the coffee. “It’s a trick on the menfolk,” he said sadly. “He filled us full of hormones and He made us commit the act of darkness and in the glory of our youth He struck us down with a blight of screeching tadpoles. An evil trick. Look around you, Leverett! Did you ever see such a misbegotten abomination of a draggle-assed quagmire? This is supposed to be my studio—pardon the pretension. I used to paint and things like that. Look at it, for Christ sake! Mickey Mouse. Diapers. Dolls. Old venerable anchovies underneath the couch; that’s that stench you smell, they’ve been there for months. Are you a single man, Leverett? Absorb if you will then this portrait of dosmes—excuse me, domesticity, and take heed. Marry a Catholic, and it’s like being retired to stud. Did you ever see anything like it? I’ll swear before Christ nothing exists like it west of the slums
of Bangkok. Did you ever see its likes before? Lord, my head aches!”

  “The place looks fine to me,” I said, lying extravagantly as I gazed up at Poppy.

  “Well goodness, Cass,” she exclaimed, “it’s not as neat as it could be, but if you’re so smart why don’t you take care of four children and everything, and cook, and wash clothes and everything, with only a part-time girl to help, and then—”

  “Go to bed, Poppy,” he cut her off abruptly, without emotion. “Just go to bed. I’ve got to go out.”

  “Cass Kinsolving! You’ll do nothing of the—”

  “Go to bed now!” he said. His voice was that of a father with a headstrong child, not unkindly but very firm. “Go the hell to bed.”

  Her face blazed up and she tossed her head, but she gathered her kimono about her and swept in insult toward the door. “You just go to the dickens!” she said, with a catch in her voice, as she sashayed out, lyric and lovely and impossible. “Sometimes I think you’re absolutely pazzo in the head!”

  “That’s two tonight who’ve pegged me for a loony—two besides myself,” he said morosely when she had gone.

  I watched him as he sat there in gloomy silence, staring down into the dregs of his coffee. I didn’t see how he would be able to go on. Yet again I sensed the urgent interior struggle: out of sheer power of will, right before my eyes, he seemed to be casting off the layers of drunkenness and obfuscation that encompassed him, much in the manner of a dog, rising from the mud, who by successive violent shakes becomes purified and cleansed. It was as if he were actually thrashing about. Something held him in torment and in great and desperate need: I never saw anyone I wanted so to get sober.

  All at once he rose to his feet. “Now you’ve got to be my will power, boy,” he muttered. “Come on.” I followed him down the steps into the dank darkness of the lower level of the house, puzzled by what he had just said, until he explained that he had to take a cold shower—in order to complete the process of purgation—but that he lacked the strength of character, at this point, to keep from turning the hot water on. He snapped on a light in the noxious bathroom, where more diapers lay in soggy disarray upon the floor. “Me, I’ve gotten used to it,” he said with a note of apology as he undressed. “I come in here and shave, and I pretend I’m on a hillside somewhere, smelling the pungent fern and the trailing arbutus. Now—” he exclaimed, climbing over the rim of the tub and standing rigidly with closed eyes beneath the shower. He thrust out his arm toward me. “Here, hold me glasses. Let her rip.” I turned on the cold water, frigid from mountain streams, full blast. He let out a yell. “That’s it!” he cried as the water splashed and cascaded over him. He shivered and trembled and held his breath, groaning, his lips working as if in prayer. “That’s it! Keep it up! Mother of Christ! … I’m a bleeding Spartan! … Keep it up, Leverett! … Sacramento! … I’m turning into a … bleeding stalagmite!” He howled and screamed there for five minutes beneath the driving spray but after a final whoop, like some crazed mystic announcing divine revelation, gasped that he was Methodist-sober, boy, and with his hair plastered down around his face clambered dripping from the tub.

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