Set this house on fire, p.30
Set This House on Fire, p.30William Styron
In my confusion, our greeting had such a quality of ludicrousness that I found myself forcing back in my throat a bubble of bereft and crazy laughter. I calmed myself. “I don’t know,” I said. “I think I’m going mad.”
“I can understand. Via!” he snarled at two urchins who tried to edge past him. “I can well understand. You were well acquainted with this man, Mason. Is that not so?”
“I was,” I said. “Tell me, Luigi, what in God’s name happened?”
There is something about death, violence, and calamitous happenings that brings out in Italians the wiseacre, the frustrated savant; of the many details I recall from that hellish day not the least is how, in my search for particulars, I ended up with a collection of aphorisms. “Who knows,” he said, gazing at me gently through heavy-lidded eyes, “who knows what terrible things lurk in the mind of a man who kills? Who—”
“Can I see him, Luigi?” I broke in. Why at that moment I wanted to see Mason (I think I have an aversion to the dead more than ordinarily squeamish) will forever remain a mystery to me, unless it was only to prove to myself, in my stupefied disbelief, that it was really Mason’s mortal shell beneath that blanket, instead of some living, breathing Mason who, pink and supine, would gaze up at me with a wink and a lunatic cackle, full of claptrap to the very end.
“È vietato,” said Luigi. “No one is allowed on the scene until the investigation is completed and the body removed.”
“But I knew him, Luigi,” I pleaded. “He was… he was"—and out came the calumnious phrase—"he was my best friend.”
Luigi pondered for a moment. I could not help but feel that the fact that I was an American—despite, or perhaps even because of, his comments of the night before—gave me a certain status in his eyes. “Very well,” he said finally. He moved away across the grassy ledge to the place where Mason’s body lay. Two men stood there brooding over a ledger—a mountainous fat sergeant of the carabinieri, with spectacles, with a fuming cigarette pasted upon his lips, and with a triple chin folded away toward his neck like the buttocks of a baby; the other a thin, bony, intense-looking man in a trench coat and a fedora which came down over and all but hid his eyes: he was assiduously chewing gum, and a pistol divulged itself lucidly through a bulge in his coat, like a plain-clothes cop in a funny movie. Only, he was not funny. This man, I was told by a wide-eyed boy standing beside me, was I’investigatore, from Salerno, and while Luigi murmured in his ear and gestured toward me, I humbly awaited his decision, ungrieving, unmourning, but with a pain of desolation in my heart such as I had never felt before.
“O.K.” said Luigi, as he came back. “You can talk to the investigator.” He enunciated the title in oval meticulous syllables, investing it with glamour and ponderosity. “Be brief, though,” he added. “The investigator has much to do. Have you seen Cass, by the way?”
“Not since last night,” I replied.
“Strange,” he said, with a puzzled look. “I can’t find him anywhere. Or Poppy or the children, either.”
I ducked under the rope and walked toward the investigator; he scrutinized me narrowly as I approached, looking up from his notebook, suspicious, guarded, glacial, a regular monk of a policeman, with pious and austere eyes and a lean, monastic, lowering stance, his jaw working strenuously against its burden of gum. The sergeant, a behemoth beside him, intercepted the rays of the sun, casting an oblong of darkness over Mason’s prostrate form, like the shadow from a gigantic tent. Welling up inside with my ancient atavistic dread of cops, I walked toward them with a great deal of hesitance. “Buongiorno” I said.
“Do you know this man?” said the investigator in a peremptory voice.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I do. I should like to see him, if I may.”
“He has already been identified,” he replied, somewhat illogically. There was no discourtesy, no harshness in his voice, yet there was no trace of gentleness either. He seemed rather to have trapped within him, like steam in a simmering kettle, a seething anger, and was taking pains to control himself. “He has already been identified,” he repeated, fixing me with his competent, gelid eyes. “What is this man to you?”
“Why I—I don’t know,” I replied. “That is—what do you mean?”
The voice of the mammoth sergeant behind him was like a wheezy little reed: emanating from that ton of mountainous flesh it had a fluty, canary-like quality, the voice of a boot-licker—querulous, eunuchoid, and sarcastic. ‘Ascoltami! You heard I’in-vestigatore! What is this man to you? How do you know this Flog?”
“Quiet, Parrinello,” the investigator snapped. His voice grew more equable as he turned back to me. “I mean, signore, how do you stand in relation to this man. What is he to you—the deceased. Relative? Friend?”
“He was a friend of mine,” I replied.
The investigator leveled upon me his frosty gaze; again there seemed to be no hostility in his look—toward me, at least: if anything, there was now even a touch of cordiality in his manner. But he was still all business: I was no doubt a source of information to him, so perhaps he did not want to fluster me by giving vent to the anger raging within him. He shifted his gum and cleared his throat, saying: “So he was a friend? Let me ask you this, signore. Was he a psychopath?”
Nourished all my schooldays as I have been on the thin porridge of psychology, I am as given as anyone to tagging people with labels; with Mason then, however, in his ultimate, pitiful state of defenselessness, I didn’t know what to say. “Well, I’m sorry—” I began. “If he was, it was because—No!”
“How long have you known him?” he put in. “Understand, signore, you’re under no obligation to answer these questions. However, you would be doing us a kindness by whatever information you can offer about this—” And he looked down at Mason, his lips parted as if upon some distasteful word. “This man here. You have known him how long?”
My glance stole down to the blanketed form. I might say that there was a smell of death about this scene, except that there wasn’t; all I could smell was my own sweaty, unstrung self, while death resided only in the eye—in the blanket-shrouded body, shockingly immobile, in those shanks and feet with their hue and texture of milk glass, and in that plague of demonic scavengers, whose mindless winged presence, at least at that moment, seemed once and for all to dispose of any idea of a caring and beneficent deity: the thousand sucking flies, rankly festering in a metaphysics of their own, which swarmed on the blanket and upon Mason’s ankles, and sought out private mysteries between his toes. And for an instant I pondered just how long I had known Mason, realizing that by any definition whereby one might feel me competent to judge him I had not known him long—two swift boyhood years, plus a week, plus these last feverish hours—but that with all of this I had the notion I had known him all my life. That is what I said, finally: “I’ve known him all my life.”
“And he never exhibited any tendencies which one might call psychopathic?” said the investigator.
“Not to my knowledge,” I said. I don’t know whether I lied to him, and still don’t know to this day. One thing I did know: that Mason, upon whom short hours ago I would have turned my back in his direst need, now was so defenseless that it was the least I could do, in my own way, to stick up for him, if only as a last, nostalgic gesture. I said: “He was not psychopathic, signore, not to my knowledge.” And one sudden remembrance—that I had not bade him even a decent good-by—touched me with withering sorrow.
The investigator still held himself in check, but it was an effort, and on his thin dry lips there was an expression of restrained exasperation. He handed the ledger to the sergeant and drew his trench coat around him with an angry, silent flourish. ( “Thank you, my Captain, thank you, thank you,” the sergeant said insistently.) Far down in the village I heard again an old woman’s shriek of lament, distant, echoing, drowned in a renewed clamor of bells which swept up the valley on a gust of wind. A small cloud darkened the day with a moment’s somber light; the grass rus
“Furthermore, what—” I said.
“Furthermore, I do not believe you when you say this man was not psychopathic. Per prima cosa, it is apparent to me that he was a suicide. That does not in itself necessarily mean that he was a psychopath, but such an act is always at the very least the product of a deranged mind. Secondo”—and here I began to detect a tremor in his voice as the anger, the outrage gained dominance within—’secondo, signore, I cannot believe that anyone but a psychopath could commit such an insane act of violence. Therefore, it is no doubt a charity to call this man one. Never in my life have I seen a person violated so horribly as that girl. Never! Signore, you were his friend and I will spare you—”
The sergeant’s piping, female voice broke in; his face was tomato-red and his lumbering body shook like jelly, scarily, as if his whole bladdery, epicene form were about to tumble down upon me. “Never in your life! Her scalp ripped back from her head as if seized by a bear! Never in your life! Gangster of an American—”
“Shut up, Parrinello!” the investigator commanded. “Shut your mouth!” Then he turned back to me and said in a savage whisper: “But it is true! The man was a devil.” His eyebrows bristled close to me, he breathed an odor of peppermint. “A devil!”
“Untrue,” I said. “He was no devil.” But I didn’t know. They seemed to be talking about a total stranger. Over my drooping consciousness, like a shawl, I felt descending a kind of blessed unbelief, and I heard a strumming in my ears which I thought might be the first onslaught of dementia.
MISERIA! the bells sounded from the town. DOLORE!
It was dusk by the time I got back to the village. No, of course it was not dusk but only that illusion of premature darkness which came as the sun sank down behind the towering hills, allowing the stars to shine in the afternoon and the chickens beside the hillside huts to go off clucking dolefully to sleep amidst the hazy lavender. Everything had become more peaceful, though, as this false night fell. There were lights burning in the houses I passed, and I smelled fish cooking; I even heard a snatch of rowdy laughter. The first shock had worn off, it seemed, and now with a clatter of pans and a cautious whistle people were beginning to go about their ordinary ways. Down a dark alleyway a radio was blaring music; it was an old record of Artie Shaw’s “Frenesi,” and I felt a pang of nostalgia, made doubly grim because I associated the tune with my days at St. Andrew’s and, unavoidably, with Mason. Yet curiously I refrained from thinking of Mason: it was not something I could think about. He was dead, that was all, and for all I was able to feel deep within my heart he might have been dead for twenty years. Having accepted this fact, I could no longer feel even my original sense of loss, of desolation: shattered though I might have been, I felt no grief, and my eyes were as dry as marbles. It was indeed over some other death that I brooded for a while when, approaching the gate of the town, I spied the wreckage of my Austin, unmolested by seekers after spare parts, so far as I could see, but now the lime-splotched roost of a flock of pigeons. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the car and passed it by, but the sight of it made me heavy with thoughts of di Lieto: in dreary alternation, I saw him swaddled mute and helpless in hospital, plasma dripping into his veins, then still in his denim overalls, purblind, gimpy, grinning, presenting his shabby credentials at the everlasting doors. But di Lieto, too, I put out of my mind: I wanted nothing so much as to get away from Sambuco, and I was seized by the final demoralizing notion—made more troublesome by some nagging, left-over feeling of obligation to Mason—that I would have to “arrange” for his disposal.
I reached the piazza: here the citizenry was still milling about, but the place was not nearly so crowded as before, nor so stunned, nor so frightened. As my anxiety and tension faded, I felt hungry again and I sat down at a cafe table and ordered a sandwich. But the waiter, a sleek stuffed young man with a Mussolini jaw, seemed so positively brusque and unfriendly that I settled for a hasty cup of coffee and left. There were murmurings in the square as I passed; for the first time it occurred to me that, in so small a town, I was easily picked out as one of Mason’s associates: I felt distinctly uneasy as I slunk across the square in my espadrilles, the target of a score of hostile eyes. Bells of doom and grief hammered in my ears as, passing beneath the church’s stern façade, I walked up the street to the palace. Muttering, the townsfolk gave way on either side of me, as if from a leper. “Orco!” I heard someone hiss among the shadows. “Ogre!”
At the top of the hill the oaken doors of the palace were flung open, while on the street before them moved a slow procession of trucks and cars. Here there was a frenzied air of demobilization: a crowd of local navvies were manhandling equipment onto the trucks; there were shouts, threats, curses; baggage poured forth from the palace doors on a human chain; a Chrysler station wagon backfired, enveloping the twilit scene in a blue pall. In the midst of the commotion stood one of the Italians I had seen the night before in his underdrawers: in pin-stripes now, and sun glasses, he bellowed orders from the tailgate of a truck. Then as I approached, my eyes picked out familiar figures in the gloom: Dawn O’Donnell and Alice Adair, despondently clutching hat-boxes; Billy Raymond, engaged in what seemed forlorn conversation with Morton Baer; and Carleton Burns, finally, who emerged from the palace looking green and sick, blinked up uncertainly at the sky, and then, hoisting to one shoulder a bag of golf clubs and cradling in his arms a pair of bongo drums, veered shaky and somnambulant toward a waiting Cadillac. For several minutes I was unable to get into the palace. Then at last I found an opening; I pushed through the mob toward the courtyard, almost colliding as I did with Rosemarie de Laframboise, who was on her way out. She had the look of one who had been weeping ceaselessly for hours; her wide cheeks were ravaged and inflamed, devoid of make-up, thus lending startling contrast to the livid bruise around her eye which she wore still as testimony to the warmth of Mason’s affection. She half-stumbled as she walked, a mink stole was wrapped around her pale and beautiful shoulders, and from her mighty bosom came hoarse tormented sobs; beside her, supporting her by the elbow, was the pretty bespectacled girl, named Maggie, who had endured the insults of Carleton Burns. I put my hand on Rosemarie’s. Her grief moved me honestly and deeply, and I hardly knew what to say. “I’m—I’m so sorry, Rosemarie,” I began.
“She’s in a state of shock,” Maggie informed me. There was a touch of awe in her voice, which had the vacant intonation of Southern California. “She’s full of phenobarbital. Jeepers, the poor girl—”
“Oh, Peter,” Rosemarie broke in with trembling lips. “Oh, Peter—” And then she halted, her eyes round, goose pimples sheathing her marble arms, unable to speak.
“God,” I said, “God, Rosemarie. I—I just don’t know what to say.” No state of human emotion renders me so fatuous as bereavement; vainly I sought the proper words to comfort her.
“It’s all so—so impossible,” she managed to say finally; her eyes suddenly opened wide, lighting up her face briefly with a look of such stunned wonder and disbelief that she appeared for a moment half-crazed. “He just couldn’t have done that, Peter. Couldn’t have. Couldn’t have. I know him!” Then, standing there, she thrust her face into her hands and once more began to weep.
“Rosemarie—” I murmured. Beneath my touch her skin was like a toad’s, pulsing wildly, moist, cold as ice.
“She’s in a state of shock,” Maggie repeated. “Alonzo wants to get her to Rome as soon as possible.”
“He went to Naples to see the American consul or somebody about—well, you know, about arrangements, I guess.”
“Is he coming back?” I said. Cripps alone was the one who I felt might bring a touch of sanity to this bedlam.
“There, baby,” Maggie was saying to Rosemarie, patting her heaving shoulders. “Don’t cry, baby. Everything’s going to be all right.” She glanced up at me. “No. Everybody’s leaving. Sol Kirschorn heard right away about what happened and he sent a telegram from Rome. I saw it. It said: ‘Get out of town subito. Repeat subito.’ I guess he didn’t want to get mixed up in everything. There, baby sweet, everything’s going to be all right. Come on now, let’s go out and get into the car.”
Rosemarie raised her head, her mouth working wordlessly, and gazed at me. For an instant I had an awful vision of her sorrow: her black eye alone was witness to the loyalty she still bore for him, far beyond the memories of his misdeeds, his clouts and bruises, and his unfaithfulness. What part of him she was grieving for I could not tell: how grieves the lady fair of such a man as Mason? But I had a quick sad vision, as I say, and I guessed she must be grieving for the times when he made love to her in the night, or when she whispered “Muffin” to his sleeping tousled face, or those mornings when, in the first fever of love, he appeared to her a staunch knight, not only rich but tender, too, and alive and quivering with promise. Her arm rose in a sudden nervous gesture to her hair; her tresses became dislodged, unloosing a bunch of bobby pins which skittered to the floor. “Peter,” she said imploringly, “he didn’t do these things. I know. He just—”
“Come on, baby sweet,” said Maggie.
Rosemarie’s hand rested chilly upon mine; again she tried to make her mouth say words, but her lips moved soundlessly, and with a great shudder she turned and walked—hobbled, I should say, so tortured was her progress—across the tiles toward the door. I watched her go: a good girl, she seemed to me, victimized by Mason even to the point of this towering grief, a kindly girl trailing a spoor of bobby pins from her disheveled golden hair and with a copy of The New Yorker crumpled clumsily beneath her arm.
Set This House on Fire by William Styron / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes