Set this house on fire, p.34
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       Set This House on Fire, p.34

           William Styron

  He paused for a long time, concentrating, as if to summon all that he could of that afternoon.

  “I’ve done it badly,” he said finally. “I feel that I’ve only gotten a little bit of it over. I’ve done it badly. But that’s the trouble when —when you try to describe a—a state like this. You end up like some shaggy tenth-century anchorite, hooting and hollering that he’s been raped by a platoon of angels. It’s like the criticism of a painting: it just can’t be done, you’ve got to look at it yourself. Well, anyway, maybe you can see how, if I got such a boot out of these spells, I didn’t want to give up the very thing that caused them, even if the very thing that caused them was a self-destructive thing of booze and slow starvation and nervous exhaustion. Suicide, really. No, I wouldn’t say I didn’t want to give it up. Like anybody who’s hooked, who’s wrassling with the beast, I’d have given anything to be free, to be clean. Besides, a—a seizure like the one I was telling you about didn’t come too often, even when I was pouring it on the most. But I must say the prospect of having one again sort of took some of the curse off—off the horror. Even if the worst—”

  “The worst what?” I asked, when he failed to finish the sentence.

  “Well, let me go back to where I was. I can’t say how long this moment of rapture—I guess, that’s what it was—I don’t know how long it lasted, maybe not more than half a minute, I suspect even less than that. Then a strange thing happened. Again it was something I had never experienced before. I fainted, blacked out. One moment I was standing there with my heart pumping away, watching the street and the plane trees and the dog trotting up the alleyway and the pigeons high above, and then the scene just dribbled away before my eyes, in rivulets, as if it had all been no more substantial than a rag doll left out in the rain, and I saw all the colors and outlines draining slowly out of sight, and all went black then as if I had been accepted gently but positively into the very bosom of death—I even thought that as I melted away—and I felt nothing except a kind of endless black repose and peace. And yet, do you know something? With all of this—with all of this sense of eternity crowding around me, and passing into some space of infinite time—I didn’t move an inch from the place where I was standing. My head—only my forehead—had drooped down and banged itself gently against the windowpane, and I snapped my neck up and saw not the night or passage of time that I had expected but the woman, by God, still standing there massaging her hands, the plane trees trembling, casting the same shadow, and the pigeons high up still whirling around over the cemetery. Only the dog had finally vanished, and even his shadow I could still see against the far wall of the alleyway with a leg uplifted as he watered a tree. The woman singing Mozart was still soaring off on the same aria, the same measure, in fact. I hadn’t even dropped the bleeding cognac. And I was standing there in the green light from the elephant vines, rubbing the bump on my forehead and breathing like a maniac, and troubled, and close to weeping, feeling that I had tied into the space of a minute more emotion than a man should have in a couple of years.”

  The recollection seemed to shake him and sadden him, and so gradually I somehow managed to change the subject. Yet later I happened to touch on that afternoon, inadvertently, and before I was scarcely aware of it he was reliving the whole thing again. But first there was a diversion.

  “That reminds me,” he said. “Once, you know, when I was a kid, sixteen or seventeen or so, and living up near Wilmington on this river I was telling you about—once, I remember, one Saturday afternoon I went into town all by myself. Listen! This has a whole lot to do with it all. … I got slicked up and put on my patent-leather shoes and my pin-stripe suit from Montgomery Ward and I went to Wilmington. I was quite a sight, I guess, a young hayseed with big gawky hands and store-bought glasses and a hand-painted tie and a wide simple country-boy’s leer on my face. I don’t know, I might even have had a touch of a mustache then; I remember I grew one at some time: we lived in a mighty depressed area in those days. It was right around the beginning of the war, I remember: the streets were packed with soldiers and Marines, and it was hot, and I remember I had only one thing on my mind and that was to get me a piece of nooky. I hadn’t ever had a girl, you see—hell, never even touched one!—and I figured they were going to put me into the Army, too, and soon, and ship me off to a place where there weren’t anything but colored girls or something, and so I guess I made up my mind that it was now or never. Well, I remember walking around the streets of Wilmington all afternoon, feeling my oats and snooping around and poking my nose into little beer joints, and getting chased out on account of my age, and feeling hornier and hornier, like some young billygoat, really, and making the terrible discovery as I went along that there just weren’t any girls to be had: what few of them there were, the soldiers had. I got pretty downcast after a while. You know, there’s nothing more pitiful on earth than a boy of seventeen and his clumsy, suffering desire. So it got to be evening, finally, and it got later and later and I still hadn’t found me a girl. I remember a soldier told me that I could get a good piece for five bucks at a certain hotel, but five bucks for me in those days was close to being a millionaire.

  “Well, I dragged on back toward the bus station finally, figuring that it was a bad job all around. Then just as I turned a corner, standing full in the gorgeous light from the windows of this Rexall drug store, she appeared to me: the black-eyed, heart-stopping, resplendent girl of my dreams. My God, I can even remember her name! It was Vernelle Satterfield. And do you know what she was doing? She was standing there—this little ripe peach of a girl, this delectable nymph in bobbysox, this marvel of nubile and ravishing womanhood—she was standing there in the dazzling Rexall light and she was hawking Watchtowers at five cents a copy for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. For a moment she struck me almost blind, she seemed so beautiful. And she was: all brown hair and round young breasts and soft contours and rose-gold Botticelli flesh. Well, I don’t guess I was any paragon of—of suavity in those days, but somehow I managed it; maybe it was just the force of my unbridled passions. Anyway, I hove to alongside her and gave her a nickel for a Watchtower and then another nickel for a lot of other junk she had, all the time hemming and hawing and trying to act benign and elderly, and finally I laid out fifty cents for the collected sermons of the Judge whatever-his-name-was who ran the outfit, and that clinched it: I told her my name and she told me hers, and she said she was plumb exhausted from having to fend off soldiers all afternoon, and that I was the only gentleman she’d encountered in some time, and though she would have to decline my invitation to have a beer, as her religion forbade it, she would join me in an ice-cream sundae. So I took her into the Rexall’s. Mother of God …

  “Vernelle Satterfield!” he exclaimed, with a look of long reminiscence. “Christ, I’ll remember that girl till the day I die! Never on earth was a ripe, toothsome, palpitatingly carnal reality touched with such a glow of virginity and innocence. She was sixteen and a half, she said. Imagine, saying sixteen and a half. She was dressed in what I suppose you would call decollete—though I expect she wasn’t aware of it—and every time she would lean over, ever so innocently, she’d expose this pink full brassiere and then she’d heave backwards a bit and stroke her lovely hair and say in her gentle sweet voice that she was glad there was one gentleman left in Wilmington, North Carolina. Funny thing, too, was that there didn’t seem to be anything snippy or priggish about this: she was just pure, you see, pure as hell and full of religion, and she thought a whole lot about the verities, as she put it. I remember she said, just as gravely and honestly and sweetly as you please: ‘After all, Jesus Hisself was a gentleman.’ Well, after about half an hour of this, what with all the leaning over and all this pristine, silky crossing and recrossing of her legs, I was just one solid sweaty torment, and I asked her if I could take her home. She raised these little plucked eyebrows a bit, and considered, and then she said yes, she supposed I could—again because I was so well-mannered and moral-looking—and
so I picked up all the tracts and prayer books and hymnals and we got a bus and went back to her house. She wasn’t really heavy about it, as I remember—she could talk about other things, if pressed—but she seemed to focus pretty consistently on religion, and on the way out on this bus she kept asking me what my affiliation was, and whether I felt I was really prepared and so on, while I kept my hot eyes (do you remember those short skirts girls used to wear then?) on her round plump sweet knees. You know, if you could turn into tiny bits of—of feathers, every word said by all men, in just one year, to all women when the men were thinking of something else; when they were trying to be smooth and polite but when their minds were fixed on that single all-compelling goal, you’d have enough hypocrisy to plug up the entire known universe with feathers. Well, sterling gentleman that I was, I tried to carry the ball, and I tried to focus on the truth. I told her that I was an Episcopalian by baptism and all that, and how my father had been an Episcopalian minister—which was true, of course—but that I’d been left an orphan at ten, and had been brought up by an uncle and aunt who were Methodists. Which was also true. But, as I say, lust brings out the hypocrisy in man or boy—those plump knees and that heaving little bosom, I could hardly think straight by then—and so I told her that, in spite of all this, I’d been powerfully drawn toward the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who always seemed to me to represent the highest-type religion, and I must say this clinched things even further: she said she was an orphan, too, which gave us a kind of kinship, didn’t it, and she thought it was real nice that I might become a Witness, and by the time we got out to her house we were mooning at each other a little and I had hold of one of her sweaty little hands. I was about to burst. I remember saying, ‘Lord, ain’t it sad to be an orphan,’ which was true enough, but not at that moment, because all I was thinking about was whether I’d have the courage, and whether God (and then I did believe in a nice loose-type God) would permit me to have my way with this luscious handmaiden of His. And then I heard her say: ‘Lord, ain’t it true? Jesus called Momma and Poppa away when I was only five.’ I was literally about to burst.

  “Maybe I seem to be getting away from the point. But you see, it was this girl and this moment in time which were so important to me that day in Paris, and I’ll tell you about it. But I’ve often thought that it was not the girl so much—maybe because, whatever it was, it wasn’t love—who was important to me, but the moment, the mood, the sad nostalgic glamour—call it what you will: the crystallization of a moment in time past which encompasses and explains and justifies time itself. Because, say what you will, the loutish seduction of an adolescent might be funny or ludicrous or pathetic or even sad, but it isn’t hardly anything in itself to waste a whole lot of time in making it significant or tragic or profound. No, with sweet Vernelle it was something else—-the moment surrounding her, the clouds of time through which she bore like a pair of chalices her witless carnality and her innocent love of Jesus. I mean, think how few of us—of our age, at least—ever escaped the moment, whether for better or for worse. I wasn’t a soldier then but in less than a year I was, and that fact hardly matters. The mood is the same—the mood, the glamour, the emotion that justifies time. It was a part of the fact of going to war, with all of us, and with me it was heightened by being a southerner anyway, I guess. Hell, you know what I mean about that. Someone said the Second World War was fought just like the War Between the States—between the Potomac and the Gulf of Mexico—and my God it’s true. Think of all us millions of men and boys prowling the streets of a thousand dusty southern towns, and the boredom, and the beer joints, and the bus stations, and the bootleg whiskey and the endless, endless search for girls. And the rain and those dead, black skies of winter and the M.P.’s. How few of us escaped it! It’s a mood that lingers in the heart of a whole generation. And behind it all, shadowing all of it, is the memory of the time when all the lovely girls had vanished from the land. The time when only the whores were abroad. The whores, and Vernelle Satterfield. Every one of us at one time or another briefly found Vernelle, you know.

  “As I say, she loved Jesus, all right. She lived in a ratty sort of one-story clapboard house with her aunt, who was a high priestess or something in the Witnesses. The aunt was out, Vernelle said, and my heart swelled at the news. Well, you know what kind of house it was, because you were there with your Vernelle: a beaded overhead lamp and two overstuffed plum-colored chairs and linoleum on the floor and a kerosene stove. And there in the corner is a maple chest of drawers, called the chiffonier, and an old upright piano, and a Westclox clock ticking on the table.” Pausing, he grinned a little, and said: “Actually, it wasn’t too different from the house I was brought up in. It near about breaks my heart. Anyway, there’s a sort of rump-sprung davenport and there’s a pillow made of iridescent pink-and-green silk, and it has a picture on it of The Alamo or St. Petersburg and a poem, or an apostrophe to Mother. There’s a rack on the floor with about twenty-five movie magazines in it. And on the piano are two tinted photographs of boys in uniform, signed Buddy or Leroy or Jack Junior or Monroe. They are grinning. One is Vernelle’s cousin, and the other is her boy friend. That’s the God’s truth. It’s one of the prime facts of this mood in time that Vernelle always had a boy friend. My heart sank like a rock. But, do you know, she could not have loved either me or Buddy so well, loved she not Jesus more. Sometimes I think it was at that moment I decided to become a painter. Because in her little bedroom—she led me in with great piety and dignity, but that bed really loomed, I’ll tell you—she had the goddamdest gallery of Jesuses you ever saw: Jesus crucified, Jesus staggering underneath the cross, Jesus weeping and before Pilate, and in Gethsemane and upon Calvary and risen from the tomb. Miracle-working Jesuses and ascending Jesuses and suffering Jesuses—every bleeding one of them made in Atlanta. It was like a regular Jesus cult. It would have put some of those Italians back in the Abruzzi to shame.

  “I almost queered myself then. Even back then I loved painting; I didn’t know a damn thing about it, but the earth seemed to move whenever I saw, say, a Leonardo drawing in a book, and this terrible crap of Vernelle’s almost turned my stomach, so when she asked me what I thought of her pictures I allowed as how they seemed to me long enough on religion but powerfully short on art. Her pretty little face got all flushed and angry and she said I didn’t know anything about painting. I was a gentleman, maybe, but a gentleman without any eye, and my poor heart plummeted again, and I thought surely that that was that. But she recovered after a bit, and said she was hungry—up in my old neck of the woods they say hongry—and so I went out to a little stand and got a bagful of hot dogs and a couple of Pepsi-Colas and brought them back and we sat there on this rump-sprung couch munching away, and Vernelle got on religion again—got on it! she was always on it—and asked me who my favorite apostle was. Then I said something—I wasn’t thinking—and came out with a prophet instead, Ezekiel or someone like that, and she gave a tinkly little laugh at my ignorance, and I could feel a chill rise up between us like a sheet of glass. I thought it was a chill, anyway. Ah God, I was suffering! Every capillary in me from head to toe was absolutely tumescent with desire, raging, and I couldn’t do anything but sit there and chomp away at the hot dogs and plot and connive and plan hopeless stratagems, and sweat and suffer. There’s no misery more acute on earth than the plain ordinary horniness of a boy of seventeen. It got awfully late finally and I was so full of religion I was close to tears. I was scared as hell, really, but determined, and ready to try anything short of rape, and even that, to enter this pure undefiled vessel of the Lord. Miserable transgressor, half-drowned even then in original sin!

  “At last, just as I thought I was at the final insupportable bursting point, she got up, and with a sort of mincing pristine swaying motion of her behind she walked over to this old Victrola and put on a record—some hillbilly record, I remember, I can hear it right now as clear as a bell—she put on this Roy Acuff and turned around and said just as calmly and bland
ly and sweetly as you can imagine: ‘Would you at all care to dance?’ I can see her now: this mellow, unblemished, plum-ripe little virgin with a smear of mustard on her lips, one hand outstretched graciously—so—just like she’d seen it in the movies. And I was flabbergasted. Would I at all care to dance, my God! At that moment I would have danced with her barefoot on broken glass, or under the sea, or straight into the maw of hell. But I didn’t understand, I didn’t believe it! Dance with this dove of Jehovah? And I said: ‘But ain’t it against your religion?’ And she said, real calmly, without a flicker: ‘That’s one thing you’ll find out about us Witnesses. We’re right liberal as concerns social contacts.’

  “And by God, do you know that that did it! Me and my wretched suffering! Why, do you know that she’d been just waiting for me to make a move as soon as we stepped into that house. As quick as I got my arm around her she was all belly and thigh and groin and mustard-smeared mouth wide open, groaning ‘Lover boy’ and all in this swooning movieland passion, saying over and over, ‘Dawling, what took you so long?’ And in a fake Stork Club accent, at that. Vernelle Satterfield! A Messalina in the guise of a vestal virgin! Not a treasure of the Lord, but a junior-sized harlot! Why she was no more of a virgin than one of those little trulls of fat King Louis! And she kept saying, ‘Dawling, what took you so long?’—in this real clickety-clack godawful phony voice, as if she wished my name were Rodney. And then, well, what man can’t remember the first girl he ever touched, the smell of perfume—gardenias, you know—and the elastic, and the pitiless garters, and the simple feel of young flesh beneath your fingers, which is so hopelessly sublime, I suppose, because at that age it’s beyond your power to conceive of it as anything but immortal.


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