Set this house on fire, p.35
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       Set This House on Fire, p.35

           William Styron

  “Yet I was a failure. A hopeless, flat-assed failure. Who wouldn’t have been, in my condition? I was like a great gorged mosquito. But it didn’t matter. It just didn’t matter one bit at all. The mood remains in time, it lingers, and that’s the important thing. My God, Vernelle Satterfield! I can still see her as the lust consumed all the simple piety in her eyes, and as she screwed up her face and still in this elegant huskiness moaned: ‘Come on, Lover boy! Hurry! Hurry! Aunt Lucille might be coming!’ And with my hair standing on end and every arm and leg atremble, she dragged me like some big limp reluctant half-grown hound dog into the bedroom and onto the sagging springs. And there I had her, in the dim light beneath the eye of three dozen proliferating, suffering Christs, and with Roy Acuff howling like a spook possessed about the great speckled bird, and the Bible, so envied by the swan. No, I didn’t have her, as I say. I was a failure, because one single caress of her hand brought me down against her blubbering in delirium. And spent. But it doesn’t matter. The other things remain—the guitars, the gardenias, and the sweat and the hurry, and Aunt Lucille coming, and far off outside the sound of soldiers singing, and war, and the Lamb of God with great oval merciful eyes peering down at me over the billowing bedclothes. And Lord, her words! I’ll never forget her words! I’ll never forget her words as she sat up in bed and put my weak trembling hand to her young breast and said: ‘Why, you pore silly. Look down there! Look what you done! Why the divine spirit just flowed right on out of you.’”

  He ceased talking for a bit and took off his glasses, as he sometimes did, in order to press his fingers thoughtfully against his closed eyelids. Then after a spell of silence he made a small noise which was partly a laugh, but even more a sigh, and then he said: “Well, as I say, all this was somehow tied up with that day in Paris. And I’ve never gotten it quite straight. I’ve never really gotten it quite fulfilled in my mind. I remember not too long ago you seemed to be trying to get at something important. You were talking about that strange moment sometimes just before you fall asleep, which is so inexplicable and indescribable and mysterious, when you’re in a state that is neither sleeping nor waking but something miraculously in between, where the antennae of the subconscious are all alive and aquiver yet drowsy, deliriously drowsy, and all sorts of random memories come flooding back with this really heart-stopping and heart-rending immediacy, as if it were not simple memory you were conjuring up but the beauty and sadness and joy of all things real that had ever happened to you. Well, there in Paris that afternoon I was telling you about, after that spell or seizure at the window, after I blacked out and recovered myself, I remember that the first thing I wanted to do was to go to sleep. Most of it was the booze, I guess, but something else had happened, too. I was baffled by what I had seen from the window, and confused, and a tiny bit scared, too, I reckon. I just didn’t know what the hell was going on. But the funny thing was that with all of this I felt wonderfully serene and composed, for the first time in as long as I could remember, and I had this boozy calm drowsiness in all my bones—the troubled and trembly and creepy feeling I’d had at first wore off in about half a minute—and so I turned away from the window and went over to the couch and lay down there. But I couldn’t sleep. Or rather, I could only doze partly off and half-listen to The Magic Flute and find myself in that miserable poetical borderland where a thousand memories began to crowd in on me and twist my heart without mercy. And I thought, without lust at all but only with this hopeless wild desire, about Vernelle Satterfield and all that lost and lovely pink-hued flesh. And that in turn made me think of home and the dusty roads and the marshes with the long-necked water birds flapping high above at dawn, and a bunch of Dr. Pepper signs hung out on a rickety little crossroads store, and how that store would look at noontime on a hot summer day when I was a boy, with the sun burning down around it on the blazing tobacco fields and buzzards roaming in the sky and a solitary nigger coming down the road with a kerosene can or with a pig under his arm, or with a croker sack dragging in the dust, and the nigger humming. And then I began to think about other things—random, you know, and without order, and drowsy, but each one piercing my heart like a bleeding skewer —about the jungles and the beach at Cape Gloucester and how misty and spooky they looked at dawn, and the smell of the sea when we went in, and the palm trees uprooted on the shore like dead giants. And then home again and the water birds and the nigger shacks at dusk. And then when I went to New York and the way Third Avenue looked on a summer night, beneath the El, and the sound of passing trains and barges on the river, and being young in the city, and alone and full of glory on a summer night. Then home again and Vernelle Satterfield, and the way it was when my aunt took me to the circus and the merry-go-round wheeling, and my aunt holding my hand and saying, ‘son, don’t stand too close.’ Then … But it doesn’t matter. I just lay there for a while and twisted and turned, neither awake nor asleep, and dozed off, then caught myself, and all the while these memories swarmed in my mind like great birds, so real that they were not like memories at all but fragments of life touched again, and heard and seen and breathed. I don’t know how much time passed—maybe a half-hour, maybe less. Anyway, I finally got up. I couldn’t take it any more. The joy, serenity, the calm—they were all still on me, like a spell, you see, as if that feeling of wonder I’d had at the window were something I couldn’t shake out of my bones. As if whatever insight, whatever knowledge or revelation I’d been informed with there still persisted, still dogged and haunted and consumed me with its simple immaculate truth. So that again, as I got up from that couch with these memories still flapping around madly and fabulously in my brain, I was aware, just as I had been aware of the beauty in that shabby little Paris street below, of the—well, of the beauty, the beauty and the decency in my own life which was continuing and indestructible in time, the beauty which was the water birds at home and the merry-go-round and the nigger shuffling down this dusty road in summer and, God knows, Vernelle Satterfield, and which, since it existed not just in the past but now and for all time, could surely conquer over my own momentary sordidness and selfishness and meanness, if I only gave it half a chance… .” He got up and walked to the window.

  “Anyway, as I say, the joy was on me, the joy and the calm. It was a real euphoria. And, God, how stupid I was not to realize that the whole thing was a fraud! That I was in real danger. That I was sick, really, sick from booze and abuse of the flesh and semistarvation. That all this—this vision and insight was the purest hokum, pleasant maybe, pleasant as hell, really, but phony nonetheless, chemically induced, and no more permanent or real than—well, than a dream. But I didn’t know that then; I didn’t know that the higher you kite upward like that the harder you hit the ground when you fall.

  “Well, here’s what happened then. I got up off that couch, feeling like I could chew nails. Drunk as a hoot owl still, but bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to take on a whole crowd of giants. You remember I told you how I’d been unable to work for so long. Well, right then in the midst of all this phony euphoria I felt I could even give a lesson to Piero della Francesca. I had truth and beauty right squarely by the nuts, see, and I was raring to go. I staggered around the joint for a while with this big fat smug smile on my mouth, listening to The Magic Flute and getting together all my equipment: you know, sketch pad, virginal all these many months, and charcoal, and bottle—I had to have that bottle. I reckon I’d forgotten all about Poppy and the kids. I plunged outside, out into this Paris afternoon. I don’t know exactly when I started to fall, when this cloud I was riding on began to dissolve underneath me. As I recollect it, though, I don’t think it was too long after I left the house. But first I was still all electricity and bubbles and vitamins and piss-and-vinegar. I can remember walking down the little street which had seemed so beautiful, marveling at its lines and colors, really marveling, and ravished by its perfection. Then I remember walking—rolling, rather, thinking that I had the suave gait of a boulevardier but in reality
about as graceful as some swab-jockey on liberty—staggering down the rue Delambre toward the Dome with this great big grin on my face and my heart like an open door to Paris in the spring. And what is Paris in the spring? You know what it is. All pollinated air and gold and leaf and shadow and cotton dresses and the coquetry of behinds and—what else? Ah—

  “The come-down began gradually enough. I remember the first sign, though, the first warning. I was heading in the general direction of the Luxembourg Gardens; there was a certain corner there that I’d seen and I had this fuzzy idea that that would be a good place to sit down and sketch. On the way I stopped by at the Dome and got a couple of cigars, and on my way out of the place I ran into this whore I knew—on Sunday patrol, I guess, working overtime. There’s no point in going into that particular relationship. It wasn’t much of one. Her name was Yvonne or Loulou or something. About the only thing I can recall about her was that she was from Lille and that she wasn’t particularly good-looking but splendidly built. I’d spent a night with her once—a black, carnivorous, exhausting night after a drunk argument with Poppy which had left me feeling miserable and guilty as all hell. The night, I mean. You know, the old Anglo-Saxon hellfire which we just can’t ever get rid of. I felt goddam guilty over the lapse and even guiltier, I reckon, over the fact that that month I’d spent my disability check on booze, so that the ten bucks or so that I’d paid to this floozy was actually Poppy’s money. My God, what con tortions we go through! Anyway, as I say, I bumped into this broad coming out of the Dome. Somehow or other I’d managed to avoid her ever since that night of catastrophe. I’d put her out of my mind, so that when I blundered into her it was like a great big black cloud passing across my sunny day. She was a nice friendly girl, actually, not like most whores who in spite of the myth don’t have hearts of gold but are mean bitchy hornets, or just plain stupid, or bull dykes at heart. I remember that for a moment she tried to put the touch on me again, but then this strange stark solemn look came over her face as she stood there talking to me, and finally she just stopped talking and twisted her neck to one side and said in this throaty somber voice: ‘Cass, tu es malade!’ And she put her hand up to my brow and stroked it and said that it felt like the belly of a trout, all wet and cold. Then she told me I should go home and call the doctor, because I looked sick, very sick, and she was concerned for me. And she wasn’t kidding, either.

  “I shook her off, a bit brusquely, I reckon. No Montparnasse tart—especially one who had confronted me as if she were my own guilt made incarnate—was going to spoil my balmy day, see? So I suppose I said something rude, and sideslipped off jauntily down the boulevard, tipping my bottle to old bronze Balzac at the intersection and spreading a general benediction all over the place. But the come-down had already begun. I was—well, to put it mildly, I’d begun to feel poorly. God knows, I didn’t want to—and whether it was the girl who’d been the catalyst for the thing I just don’t know—but I wasn’t more than a few blocks down the street when I began to feel real seasick. And the thing was, you see, I was sick. I’d been sick for months without knowing it, and sick from what? Why, from the aforesaid booze and from abuse of the carnal envelope—as I once heard a fancy Methodist preacher call it—and in Paris, God help us, the headquarters of all that’s magnificent in groceries, from an almost insane campaign of slow, steady malnutrition. But that wasn’t all I was sick from, of course. That was the least of my sicknesses, if anything. What I was really sick from was from despair and self-loathing and greed and selfishness and spite. I was sick with a paralysis of the soul, and with self, and with flabbiness. I was sick with whatever sickness men get in prisons, or on desert islands, or any place where the days stretch forward gray and sunless into flat-assed infinitude, and no one ever comes with the key or the answer. I was very nearly sick unto death, and I guess my sickness, if you really want to know, was the sickness of deprivation, and the deprivation was my own doing, because though I didn’t know it then I had deprived myself of all belief in the good in myself. The good which is very close to God. That’s the bleeding truth.

  “And to top it all, I was a fool, you see? I thought all that bliss and wonder and insight and peace had come to me because at last I’d been given the key, because I was a genius and if a genius waits long enough he’ll be handed revelation on a silver platter. But I was wrong. I was a fool. That hadn’t been any real revelation I’d had: it had been a sick drunken daydream, with no more logic or truth in it than the hallucination of some poor old mad starving hermit. No wonder there are so many visions recorded in the register of the saints. Flog yourself long enough, starve yourself, abuse yourself, and any meathead alive will start seeing archangels, or worse. Yet I didn’t know all this that day. I didn’t know it, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why it was, as I kept on walking toward the Luxembourg, that I’d begun to feel weak and dizzy and ill. Or why it was that all my elation and delight had begun to fade away. Maybe the whore had something to do with it. No, what was going to happen was going to happen, but I’ve often thought she helped bring it on quicker: the guilt, you understand, and the dismal, messy image coming back to me—the sour sheets and the whorish counterfeit lust and myself, slobbering and humping away while Poppy lay home weeping. Triple bleeding God! Anyway, by the time I got to the Luxembourg I was feeling bad. I was clammy all over and trembling and as I passed a store window I looked at my face in a mirror and I was a pasty white ghost, just like the girl had said. And to top it all, worse than this was the anxiety I’d begun to feel—this dread, this fear that something horrible was about to happen. I remember stopping outside the entrance to the gardens. I took a tremendous wallop out of the brandy bottle, and I stood swaying there for a minute, waiting for it to lift me, to bring me back up to the summit; but I was gone, I was plunging, and I didn’t know it: at last I was getting my rightful punishment and I was plunging fast. Not a goddam thing happened: the brandy only made me feel worse. But in the midst of all this I was still determined to draw something. I was still determined to prove to myself that I could, that all this crazy passion and glory I’d felt hadn’t been a fraud, a hoax. Well, somehow I managed to maneuver myself into the gardens. It was crowded with sun-worshipers and I stood there for a bit waiting for this little wrinkled custodian of a woman while she scurried around and found me a chair. She seemed to take hours. During a spell like this, you know, time becomes elongated, pulled out like a hunk of taffy. You just sit and suffer and squirm and wait in agony for the next event to happen—because it’s that event which will show you that you’re still alive and in touch with the universe, rather than suspended in a timeless, crushing terror—but the event takes ages and ages to come. As I say, the woman seemed to take hours to fetch this chair. I just stood there, weak and hollow and terrified, shaking like a bishop with the clap. And when she finally brought it I had a surge of momentary relief and sank down into it as if it had been a throne.

  “And that was the beginning of the end. Because as I sat there with the pad limp and useless in my hand, the terror and the dread came back like a great cold paralyzing blast of wind. Just sitting there in this Paris sunlight, I never felt so lost in all my life before. I was like some hulk which has slipped its moorings and drifted out onto the sea, surrounded on all sides by reefs and ruin and yawning deeps. I wanted to cry out but I had no voice at all. I had a panicky need for escape—flight—and I had the desire to run away in all directions at once, but I figured that wherever I ran I would be chased as if by a wolf by this unimaginable, nameless, ravening terror. The Luxembourg Gardens seemed to spread out on all sides of me in light-years of space—I swear to God—and the people were as far off and as unreal as people in a dream. And through all of this, as I sat there shuddering and hammered by fright, I felt that the most precious, the most desirable, the most marvelous thing on earth would be to be shut up tightly—alone—in the darkness of a tiny single room.

  “And I know where that room was. It was back home, bac
k on that little street where I’d come from, and I knew that if I didn’t get there quick, if I didn’t get back into that safe, dark, enclosing space within a matter of minutes, this terror would conquer me, break me down, and I’d turn into a goddam lunatic right there in the midst of that peaceful Sunday in the Luxembourg, and begin hooting and shouting, or start clobbering people or maybe worse, or just gallop out and down the street and climb to the top of St. Sulpice and jump off. So I got up from that chair as steadily as I could, knowing all the while that people were looking at me—well, curiously, and I edged myself on out of the gate to the gardens, and then I began running. Not fast, and not slow, either—just this pounding, steady, determined dogtrot down sidewalks and across streets and through red lights and in between moving cars, all the while saying to myself, half-aloud, in a sort of under-the-breath monotone: If I stop running all will be lost, I’m scared now, more frightened than I’ve ever been in all my life, but if I just keep running and get back home I might be saved. And I remember somewhere crossing the Boulevard Raspail seeing a flic, and hearing him shout as if he thought I was a thief and half-expecting him to pull out a gun and shoot, but trotting on heedless, still babbling to myself, and leaving him far behind. And on a side street near the Avenue de Maine, too, colliding with two little girls playing jump-rope and hooking my foot on the frigging rope, half-falling down, but recovering myself without missing more than half a step and then plunging on, all awash with sweat and horror. Then finally I was on the little street again, and then at the doorway to the house, and I burst in and ran up the stairs two at a time and exploded back into the studio with my mouth wide-open like a gargoyle in a frozen voiceless scream. And how I managed the last part I don’t know, but I got the shades down all over the place, shutting out the light and the street below, and I got into bed and pulled the blanket over my head, and lay there trembling and whining like some miserable old woman who thinks she hears someone outside trying to break into the house… .” He came back from the window and, sitting down, lit a cigar.

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