Set this house on fire, p.27
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       Set This House on Fire, p.27

           William Styron

  “Well,” he said, stamping around with his eyes closed. “Now I can get down to business.” He groped for a towel, but there was none to be had, so he slapped off the water and slithered wetly into his pants. As he dressed he kept up a steady monologue. “No, that’s a lie,” he said while hopping around on one foot, trying without sitting down to put on a shoe, “I’m not that sober. But I’m sober enough to commit this—this most necessary larceny. Larceny! You know, I haven’t stolen anything since the war. I was on this island and I swiped a gallon and a half of grain alcohol from sick bay and I never got over being guilty about it. What a party we threw, though. What a marvelous party! Whenever I think of that party it plain long eradicates all my sense of sin. Sitting down there on the palmy beach with sand between your toes, looking at the moon, downing all that booze. Triple bleeding God! Did you ever drink grain alcohol? You know, you can hardly taste it. And my God, what a thirst I had! Now hand me that comb, will you?” He began to comb his hair at the mirror; his eyes were brighter, his hands steady now. He seemed to be finally in some command of himself, capable of most anything. “A proper thief’s got to be well groomed. Whoever heard of a second-story man who wasn’t the nattiest thing around? Besides, this is going to be the cleanest wholesome-like little piece of burglary you ever heard about. No grubby old automobile tires or greasy money from a cash register or common degrading articles of merchandise—cigarettes or cameras or fountain pens or anything like that. My God, no! This is going to be special But look!” he exclaimed, staring down at his feet. “I can’t wear these clodhoppers. They’d wake up the dead. A proper thief, you know—above all—has to be quietly accoutered around his foots. Else he’ll bump up against a prie-dieu or a taboret or a trundle bed or something, or set the joists and beams snapping with his clumsiness, and the whole household in their nightshirts will be down on him like a bunch of hawks. No, my friend. He’s got to be shod like a bleeding elf.” And, taking off his shoes, he padded across the darkened hallway, where, in a cluttered wardrobe or trunk, I heard him rummaging about, breathing heavily. After a moment he came padding softly back, wearing a pair of sneakers. His expression was tense and solemn. “It suddenly occurred to me,” he said, “in my great self-preoccupation, that I might be boring you out of your head. I’m sorry, Leverett. I haven’t meant to. Please just say kiss my ass, and get out of here, if you want to. God knows, that’s what I’d do if I were you. I—I don’t know. It was very decent of you to—to intercede for me up there.”

  “Mason’s a swine!” I blurted. “Tell me, Cass, did you—”

  He cut me off with a bitter, ugly look. “Don’t talk about it,” he said. “Just don’t talk about it, please. I’m going to do a little burglarizing, that’s all, and I don’t want to forget myself and foul up. Look—” he said after a pause, “look, as plastered and fried and piggish as I’ve been today, there are a few cracks of light I remember. One was you, down on the road this afternoon. I don’t know why, but I have the feeling I insulted you. I’m sorry if I did, and I’d like to apologize. I guess I thought you were another one of Mason’s tiresome shitheads—”

  “You don’t have to apologize,” I put in. “I was beat, and you were, well—”

  “Boiled. Anyway, that’s beside the point. What I’m getting at is this: that somehow through all the evil red haze I remember beating your ears off about Tramonti—this little town back in the valley. I didn’t mean to be trying to give you a message or anything. I only meant—” He turned away and moved slowly down the hall. “You’ve been a fine guy, Leverett, and I hope I see some more of you. Soon as I relieve Mason of one of his treasures I’m going to light out down into the valley. It’s quite a place to see, even at night, this place I’m going. If you want to hang around, I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.” He disappeared without another word into the shadows, where I heard his feet sneak away, soft and stealthy as they climbed the stairs.

  I wandered back upstairs into the littered, rancid living room. Night-dwelling flies bumbled and buzzed in the stillness. It was a sad place I beheld, this room: chaotic, unkempt, stinking, it reminded me of nothing more than some of the living rooms I had seen at home during the weary thirties, when poverty was more than a lack of money and seemed to display itself, as in this room, by a simple bedragglement of spirit. A cheap plaster Madonna ogled me from the wall with dreamy, credulous eyes; nearby a calendar marking the days of all the saints advertised the blood-red word MarzOy the month already half a year gone. A sardine can lay open on the table, filled with chartreuse-yellow grease. On an artist’s sketch pad flung out beside it were these words, with a pen frantically gouged, as if in splinters, and in a crazy, drunken scrawl: I hold to my Dear ones and now should I die I were not wholly wretched since ye have come to me Press close to me on either side Children cleave to your sire and repose from this late roaming so Forlorn so grievous!!! The pen had been laid aside after the first words of another phrase, unintelligible, below it—thrust aside with its nib punched in one violent jab through the paper, as if in sudden fury. Beneath all of this there was an impossible jerry-built child’s house with a chimney, in red crayon, a flight of prehistoric-looking birds, a spindly horse with ears like mammoth swollen carrots, also in red crayon, and the notation below in enormous red letters: AMƎRiCA GO*HOMƎ!! MARGARƎT KiNSOLViNG AGƎ 8 POO. I thought I heard a mouse or rat stir in a far corner of the room, and I looked up with a start; then with a shiver, feeling as if the decrepitude and inanition of the room had stolen into my very bones, I moved out onto the balcony. The starry lights on the water had not moved or altered, resting upon the sea like some untroubled constellation in the serene dark reaches of the firmament. There was not a sound anywhere. Closer, the swimming pool lay blue and trembling, abandoned of all save the incessant crowd of moths which like windblown petals fluttered and danced around the garish floodlamps. I hold to my Dear ones and now should I die … I could not get rid of the chill I felt in my heart and bones. I was touched all over by a clammy, insubstantial dread; if I had been a woman, I think I might have had trouble suppressing a scream.

  The door slammed open behind me, turning my flesh, momentarily, to jelly. I wheeled around, beholding Cass, who in a great flurry and agitation went to a mountainous pile of junk in the corner of the room and began to rummage about, pitching socks and shoes and belts into the air behind him. “Where’s that miserable sack?” he said. “It was as easy as pie, Leverett! I could have walked in there in chain mail, rattling like a bagful of clamshells. The Hollywood riffraff were still whooping it up and so I snuck in there as pretty as you please and copped it. It was like hooking candy.”

  “Copped what?” I said.

  He didn’t seem to notice. “Funny thing,” he went on. “Some big oaf of a Roman movie type met me just as I was coming out the bathroom with the goods in my hand. I never saw him before and he knew I was up to no good. He just stood there with his big lower lip drooping and said, ‘Che vuole lei?’ And, says I, thinking rapidly, ‘Up yours, gorgeous, I work here,’ in my best English, and breezed on past him beaming like a friar. It takes a lot of brass and cunning to be a proper thief.”

  “What goods?” I demanded.

  “Oh,” he said, looking up casually. “I quite forgot. Thoughtless of me. This.” As I approached he held out a bottle, and when I bent down to peer at it I saw that it contained pharmaceutical capsules. The label read: PARA-AMINO SALICYLIC ACID LEDERLE U.S.A. The bottle glowed opulently in the dull light. “Pure magic,” he said, softly now and rather wryly. “A hundred capsules. Enough to cure half a dozen romantic poets. What they do, they use it along with this streptomycin to cure T.B. Now if we’d had this back in the thirties my dear old cousin Eunice Kinsolving would still be alive and kicking up in Colfax, Virginia.”

  “Where did Mason get it?” I asked.

  “Ah now,” he said evasively, “he brought it forth from the clear and shining air.”

  “But—” I persisted, “but just what would
he want with a hundred capsules of that stuff?”

  “Ha!” he said, without much humor. “Well, that’s quite a long story. That there is a story, my boy, that would make your toes curl up.”

  “But he couldn’t have gotten it without a prescription, could he?”

  He stared at me. “Why, man, I thought you knew Mason. Didn’t you know that when it comes to worldly goods that boy can get anything? Anything!” He paused, regarding the bottle soberly. “The point is that you don’t hardly see any of this stuff in this benighted country. Oh, it’s here, all right. They’ve gotten around to making it, just like in the good old U.S. and A. But try to get your hands on any of it. Why, for the price of this bottle you could ransom a whole clutch of Christian-Democrat senators.”

  “What are you going to do with it?”

  For a long moment he was silent. “I don’t know,” he said, in a voice that was like a small cry. “Jesus Christ, I don’t know! The doctor—Caltroni—this misery of a Sambuco doctor … To hell with that! Anyway, it’s supposed to work all sorts of wonders. I think it’s going to be too late in this case, but there’s an outside chance. But why in God’s name are we standing here talking like this! Come on, let’s go.” Into a dirty knapsack he dropped the bottle, along with several cans of sardines, half a loaf of bread, and three or four bruised apples long past their prime. Then together we plunged out into the night.

  The main street of Sambuco up which we hastened was hardly a street at all, but a series of cobblestone steps too narrow and too steep for vehicles of any kind, damp with the steady seepage of water, slippery from this damp and from the smoothing wear of the centuries. As we toiled upward, panting, barely speaking, silent slumbering houses lined our route, illuminated by dim street lights for perhaps a mile or so, and then by nothing as the town itself dropped behind and we found ourselves walled around by darkness. It suddenly smelled like country. Cass turned a flashlight on. “The path begins around here somewhere,” he said, playing the light over a weedy patch of ground. “That’s it,” he murmured suddenly. “Come on. It’s a good half-hour’s hike, but it’s along the rim of the valley, and pretty level all the way, so we won’t get too pooped.” His light caught a lizard in its beam—a ghost-eyed, anxious-looking little creature which fled our approach and scuttled away over a wall. “A million years old, the poor bastard,” Cass said. “Come on.” We set out down the trail. A smell of lemon trees blossomed in my nostrils. I don’t know what it was—perhaps only escaping at last that palace-hemmed chicanery—but the night seemed suddenly touched with rapture. An odor of clean earth, of lemon blossoms, of pine-scented air from the mountains came over us. Out from the edge of a roving cloud the pale full moon appeared, outlining the woods and slopes below, and a stream way down in the bottom of the valley, bright as quicksilver, madly babbling and gurgling. I heard sheep baa-ing far off. The valley seemed enchanted. As we walked along Cass turned out his light; we could see by the moon: its light engulfed the entire valley, showering silver upon the pine groves and rocks and the peasants’ huts scattered here and there upon the slopes, looking lonely and marooned and asleep. Far up on the heights a waterfall noisily splashed: around it a rainbow quivered, then vanished. Again I heard the distant bleating of sheep, a somnolent, gentle noise. Finally Cass spoke up: “It’s like some crazy Arcadia, isn’t it? You should see it in the daytime, or at dawn.” There was a pause. “What’s your dodge, Leverett?”

  “What do you mean, what’s my dodge?”

  “Don’t get me wrong. I mean, what do you do? To make the world go round, and the gardens grow and all that.”

  When I told him—or when I told him what I had been doing, in Rome—there was another long pause. “I remember now,” he said. “Mason told me.” He paused. “Seems like you boys could have spread some of that aid or assistance or whatever you call it down here.” He stumbled against a stone, clutched at my arm for support, righted himself. “ ’scuse me,” he said, “still a little wobbly around the ankle bones.”

  “I wasn’t the boss up there,” I began mildly to protest, trudging along beside him. “I was just an expediter, a what you call—”

  “Aha!” he broke out in a hoarse, unhappy laugh. He pulled a beret out of his hip pocket, yanking it down rakishly over his brow; it was an odd, brisk gesture, full of scorn and anger. “Ha! Yes, Jesus Christ, I know you weren’t the boss, God bless you. I see the boss’ picture every time I pick up the newspaper. A great shark-faced elder of the Presbyterian church. What does he know about the world, I ask you! What do any of them know, the sleek stuffed bastards! Why don’t they come back here and take a look?” He paused, breathing hard. The valley around us swam in tender, silvery loveliness beneath the moon. “Look at it!” he said, stretching forth his arm. “It breaks your heart, doesn’t it? And I’ll swear before God, Leverett, it’s the saddest place I know on earth.”

  Without altering his stride, Cass lit a cigar. Smoke billowed back around us in reeking gusts. Then, after another brief spell of hacking and coughing, he spoke to me over his shoulder. “Tell you a funny story about this valley. Very, very funny story. Around Sambuco it breaks everybody up when they hear it. Especially the fat Christian-Democrats who run the town. It really breaks them up. Now you know, no one makes any money back here. They try to farm but the land’s been so poor for so many years that they’re lucky to turn up a few dry peas in the spring. You should see the chickens! They got a whole little fable about that. About how the valley of Tramonti’s the only place in Italy without foxes, the foxes got so disgusted years ago about the chickens that they just packed up and left. Anyway, that’s not the funny story. The story is about milk. You should see the cows, Leverett. They don’t get any fodder, of course; they graze on the hillsides and they’re about the size of goats. Well, about five years ago, so the story goes, the government sent a bunch of agriculture inspectors around the province, testing samples of milk. Big deal, you know. They had a fancy sort of portable laboratory and all that, in a big truck and so on, and anyway, they came to Sambuco. Well, all the farmers from all the valleys around came to the square with buckets of milk to be tested, for tuberculosis and fat content and mineral content and all that sort of thing. They tested this milk all day there in the square, and finally the farmers from this here valley—hell, there couldn’t be more than a dozen or so of them—these Tramonti farmers came up with their samples to be tested. Well, they took this Tramonti milk into their big portable laboratory and tested it and sampled it, and finally after a long time the head technician stepped out with the results. I can just visualize the whole scene: this big fat slob of a government man from Salerno with his test tubes and his charts and so on, and these poor sad hopeful yokels gawking up at him from the piazza. Well, the man drew a big breath finally and said, ‘Questo qui non è latte.È un’altra cosa.’ Can’t you see it, the whole ridiculous scene: these poor draggledy-assed bastards gazing up at this pompous fat chemist fellow, while he very gravely told them that what they had given him, whatever it was, was certainly not milk. This is not milk,’ he said again, I guess in that pompous voice government officials have, ‘it is something else.’ And then, very pompously, while all the Sambuco citizens gawked and snickered, he proceeded to give a chemical analysis of the Tramonti whatever-it-was: water, rat turds, hair, and a certain blue coloration which could only be made out as something really negative and horrible—a total absence of fat or minerals or any bleeding food value whatsoever. And then he said: ‘Take it home, this stuff. It is not milk.’ “ After a pause, Cass said: “Very funny story. Every time I hear it, it breaks me up.” His voice was spiritless. “Very funny,” he repeated. Sending out clouds of smoke from a corner of his grim, clamped lips, he fell into an impenetrable silence.

  We had walked for nearly half an hour when, trudging up over a rise, we beheld in a hollow below the moon-silvered shape of a peasant’s hut. We took a side path toward it, passing through a meadow busy with the scratching of insects, acr
oss a brook, beneath a shadow-haunted cypress grove, over a rickety stile. Descending onto a patch of soggy, spongy ground, we found ourselves in a farmyard. There was a smell of manure in the air, and the rustle and stir, somewhere in the shadows, of chickens in clumsy slumber. A broken-down dog approached snarling and snapping, quieted down at Cass’ murmured tones, gave a whimper of delight and scrambled about us, his ribs stark and scurvy in the moonlight. We approached the hut across a stretch of parched earth. Inside the hut, what seemed to be a single dim lamp was glowing. And as we moved closer to the place, I was aware for the first time of a sound which broke in upon the serene moonlit quiet of the valley like fingernails against a pane of glass or the scream of braking wheels—not a loud sound, nor a low sound either, but one long, long protracted steady wail of anguish and despair which, emanating from the darkness of the hut, was like a laceration upon my eardrum.

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