Set this house on fire, p.39
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       Set This House on Fire, p.39

           William Styron

  Florence, with its splendor that hurt and intimidated the eye, was too beautiful to stay in long. By the middle of September, Cass and company were living in Rome in a sun-shy apartment—which might have its replica in Brooklyn—on the Via Andrea Doria not far from the western limits of the city and within easy hiking distance, for Poppy, of the Vatican, which loomed over her consciousness as never Mecca did to the most worshipful Mussulman. Cass, walking the shaky tightrope of respectability, blew hot and cold—alternating hosannas for his new-found health with black moods of dejection whose origins he could not determine.

  In Rome, one thing that baffled and enraged Cass more than anything else about the curious steeplechase that went on inside his skull was that no matter how long and hard he tried, no matter in what clever combination he placed his bets, he seemed destined forever to lose. When, for instance, by force of determination, or out of desperation or whatever, he made himself play safe and went on the wagon—or climbed halfway up, at least—and in a dozen other ways became a good family man, striving for the sunny ideal of mens sana, etc., removing himself from the seductive world of the night and from erotic daydreams and sour semi-suicidal moods, brushing his teeth twice a day and polishing his shoes and cleansing his breath with Listerine—when he did all this there were indeed manifest benefits and blessings, the most important one being simply that he began to function at least biologically as a human. The world of taste and sight and sound—all the sweet sensations Nature granted to the most uncomplicated mortal—were his once more; the air dripped sunlight, his nostrils quivered to long-forgotten odors, he felt he might live to a ripe old age. Yet this state in itself had its drastic shortcomings. Chief among them was the fact that the closer he approached this condition of palmy beatitude—the whole man operating with all his God-given faculties wide-open—the closer, paradoxically, he saw himself coming to be a nice young fellow with a blurred grin, a kind of emotional eunuch in whom that necessary part of the self which saw the world with passion and recklessness, and which had to be flayed and exacerbated and even maddened to retain its vision, had been cut away. Nor was this theory, upon reflection, merely a romantic one: the simple truth of the matter was that he had become dull. To be sure, he finally broke the listless spell which had seized him on the beach at Hyères, and he began for the first time in a year to work in earnest, but his work, he knew inescapably, was flat, stupid, sterile, with all the hollowness about it of the art school, the academy. His eyes were still “as bright as prisms,” his ears attuned to Rome’s rowdy music like singing reeds. And Leopold, his ulcer, was as quiet as a dormouse. Yet no doubt there is such a thing as too much well-being; with all of it he felt that, long before he reached any ripe old age, he might perish of health, good intentions, and dullness.

  But if all this was true it was equally true that he couldn’t afford to repeat the months-long bender which had brought him so low in Paris. The memory of that last day and night still lingered in his mind like the faint echo of a nightmare, its moments of frozen beauty etched distinct and clear upon his memory yet adumbrated and made malign as if from the shadowy wings of spooks and goblins. The very thought of it gave him the shakes. Any way, he was bound to lose.

  Sometimes, he thought, sometimes I think I should have stayed in New York. I could have become an abstract expressionist and I’d smoke pot, which is healthier than booze, and I’d be a bleeding Eisenhower success. It wouldn’t take anything out of me, and I’d be chic as hell, and I’d make a mint… .

  But in winter Rome can be fabulous and grand. Although for a while the money problem was a headache, a bonanza came one day in the form of a rebate check on his G.I. insurance and with part of this he bought a second- (or third-) hand motorscooter and began to tool around the city, bescarfed and bemittened, spectacles smoking over, and with his beret flat around his ears to keep them from the Tiberous fog and damp. Americans were few at that time of the year, and he was happy. He saw everything the tourists saw, and more. When his eyes were weary with galleries and churches and ruins, with Domenichino and Guido Reni and Tiepolo and a lesser horde of his sainted forebears, he sat in cafés and bars, peering intently at Roman faces, listening to everything, and, with the rueful moderation of an elderly clergyman, sampling fiaschi of white lukewarm Roman wine. The Romans made him feel gregarious. In his brighter moods he would go to the jammed cafes of Traste-vere, where he argued with bartenders and talked to learned grandmothers with cats, with a withered old liar—a regular at one bar—who claimed to have stormed Porta San Pancrazio at the side of Garibaldi himself, and with a group of noisy young Communists who, each one, longed to go to America yet loved Cass because he loathed the place, and serenaded him with guitars. In this way he learned a more than passable Italian, which was no great feat, since long before in France he had discovered his effortless knack for tongues: it was, he thought sometimes with sadness, the only real gift he owned. Where had he read that a multilingual talent was prevalent among psychotics? This fact occasionally made him ill-at-ease. In his darker moods, while Poppy took Peggy to school or, in the housewifely way she had of dropping in on her favorite saints, shepherded the toddlers from church to church, Cass would stay home in the Canarsie apartment, smoking Sicilian cigars, groaning, and painting his dull pictures. Sometimes he listened to the phonograph, which had all but lost its voice. Sometimes he read Sophocles, who always bewildered and unnerved him and made moist the palms of his hands; more often than he cared to acknowledge he read Oggi, or rather—since he could not read the language—looked at the pictures, drooling, in the fashion of all but the most detached male humans, at Gina Lollobrigida and Silvana Mangano and Sophia Loren, and discovering new delight in photographs of Texas tornadoes and Illinois murders (un triplice assas-sinio a Chicago) with the bodies laid out beneath bloodstained sheets. Sometimes he slept all day. Sometimes he did nothing but sit and think—inert, mouth dry, nerveless as a stone—wondering what it was that was eating him. Now and then he wrote in his journal. He was gentle with Poppy and the children. He committed no harm upon himself or upon others. In this way he passed seven months in Rome.

  Then, during a cold and blustery time in March (it happened to be Holy Week, Cass remembered) there occurred a series of troublesome events that once more pointed him southward in the direction of Sambuco.

  It all came about like this. Poppy, whose religious activity had been intense enough all through the Lenten season (at times Cass had thought that if she brought one more fish into the house he would throttle her), reached a kind of peak of fervor during Holy Week; unremittingly, she had addressed herself to all sorts of complicated rites and offices, in pouring rain dashing out to see the various Stations—whatever that meant—and it was at one of these, Cass knew not where—at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, perhaps, or that other one, with the Giotto fresco, San Giovanni in Laterano—that she encountered an American couple, the Mc-Cabes. Purely encountering these two, Cass later thought, might have been all right, and who was at fault in promoting the relationship (it could not have been Poppy, who was usually diffident, and Cass later had a vision of the ham-handed, fat-lipped McCabe, with his concavity of a Galway nose and a Rolleiflex lolling on his breast, standing among the jostling throng and twitching inwardly as his eyes lit on Poppy’s radiant pious face) he never knew for certain. In any case, someone struck up a conversation. All innocence, Poppy cottoned to these pilgrims, and they to her, and she made the grave mistake of bringing them home. It was late in the afternoon when they arrived; molecules of rain floated on the air in a greasy drizzle, it was gray, and Cass, gray as a shad himself, had been brooding all day upon their now shaky financial state. McCabe, a raffish fellow of thirty-five or so in a mackintosh and a snap-brim cap, was full of grins. He dealt (bitter irony!) in retail wines and liquors in Mineola, New York; he referred to Poppy as “this sweetie here,” and he called Cass “pal.” His wife, who wore her hair in bangs over—or to conceal—a somewhat foreshortened brow, was a p
lain, nondescript, asexual young matron, and her name was Grace. Cass scarcely could believe that it was all happening to him.

  “What in Christ’s name has come over you?” he said to Poppy as softly as he could, in the kitchen, while she was fixing supper. “You invited them to eat even!”

  “Well, I’m sorry, Cass,” she said determinedly. “They were very sweet to me and all. They bought me some gelato and everything. And they looked so lonely and kind of lost there, after we got to talking. They’re sweet. Besides,” she added, with a look of sorrow, turning around to face him, “we don’t ever see any Americans—ever!—and I’m just tired of it, that’s all!”

  Which the Lord knew was true enough, Cass thought ruefully (for Poppy’s sake), he himself having retreated so far from contact with his native land that in his years abroad he could count on his fingers and toes the sum of the words he had spoken, beyond his family, in his own tongue to his own compatriots. Yet this fact alone he could not square with the desolating McCabes.

  “You didn’t have to drag in a couple of Micks, for the love of God! From Mineola yet—”

  “Hush about being a Mick!” she said, eggbeater quivering in her hand. “I’m a Mick, and the children are half, and you’re just about the biggest bigot I know. I’ve—”

  “Why didn’t you invite a couple of plumbers, and a half a dozen Odd Fellows—”

  “I’ve invited them, now shut up!”

  At supper, which was merluzzo—a form of oily codfish—and spaghetti, McCabe, blind to the litter of paint and canvas strewn about the room, asked Cass what his “line” was. When told, he grimaced, grinned, but said nothing. In the Eternal City even the Pharisee cannot be unkind to art. The conversation swung, as it logically should, to the spiritual aspects of the season.

  “Father Cleary,” said Grace, “you know we came over with him, well, he said that the Holy Father would probably be canonized some day. That’s what the rumor is, anyway.”

  “You know how rumors are,” said Cass, plucking a fishbone from his mouth. “You know how they get around. Scuttlebutt. Sound and fury, signifying niente”

  There was a moment of silence, a suggestion, almost audible, of forks and knives in mid-air, suspended. Then as Cass raised his eyes, Grace said, with only the faintest touch of asperity: “On the way over, your wife told us—well, that you weren’t a Catholic.”

  “You’re goddam right I’m not a goddam Catholic.” The sentence rose in the back of his throat, pulsating, surly; he could almost see it, inverted commas and all, but the words stopped short of his lips. “That’s right,” he mumbled instead. “Never got the bug.”

  Seething, he managed to get through the meal, picking his teeth and rising for restless tours to the bathroom and then, drifting on the tide of his own thoughts, idly sketching on the tablecloth doodles with a spoon as the puerile chatter unspiraled—about Pope Pius, whom the McCabes hoped to see sometime, at an “oddience,” and Cardinal Spellman, who was not nearly so fat—“large” was the word Grace used—as his pictures made out. Poppy, deeply impressed by this news, was nonetheless one up on the McCabes, for she had had, already, an audience with the Pope ( “up real close”) and she had a moment of modest glory when, at Grace’s breathless urging, she was able to describe the Holy Father—his hands, the cut of his nose, the size of his ring, or rings; “a fine glorious man, to be sure,” she said, shiny-eyed, lapsing into her ancestral brogue.

  “Pardon me,” Cass put in abruptly. Something had jogged his memory; it had tickled him before and it tickled him now. “You know what,” he said, already laughing, “you know what the cardinals in the Vatican call Spellman?”

  “No, what?” said Grace. “Cardinal Spellman.”


  “I really couldn’t guess,” she said with a hopeful look.

  “Shir—” He had begun to laugh so hard that he could barely get the words out. “Shir—” Convulsed, he pressed his head against his hands, weakly heaving. “Shir—Oh Christ. Shirley Temple!”

  “Cass!” Poppy cried.

  “No, I mean it!” He giggled, gazing into Grace’s scandalized face. “He comes winging in from the U.S. and A., by this Super Constellation, see—”

  “Cass!” said Poppy.

  “No, I mean it! I was told this by a priest, mind you. In he comes to Ciampino, and the news gets around the Vatican that Shirley Temple é arrivata!”


  “Haw haw haw!” Gusts of laughter exploded forth from the table, startling Cass, who looked up to see McCabe, mouth wide-open like his own, shaking in helpless mirth. “That’s rich, pal!” he said, wiping his eyes. “Shirley Temple, that’s the most! You hear that, Grace?” He could hardly wait, he added between wheezes, to tell Bill Hurley that one.

  “I don’t think it’s funny at all,” said Grace sharply.

  It was at that moment, Cass recalled later, that the evening took a vigorous turn for the better; to be sure, when all was said and done the change was illusory, lulling him, leading him into a trap, and engaging him in a tangle of emotional crises which he was not to shake off for a long time. At that moment, though (who knows what might be the repercussions of a single hairy joke?) he felt full of himself, transformed by McCabe’s surprising, appreciative laughter from a sour introvert into a talented clown. As for McCabe himself, who still sat across the table shaking his head and letting out loose wails of merriment, he basked for Cass in a new and more kindly light. That he was simple-minded and an ass was one thing; that in the face of his wife’s ambitious and tedious piety he could laugh gave him, in some odd and obscure way, more solid dimensions. Cass felt himself actually warming a little toward the man, “pal” and all.

  “No, I’ll be confidential with you, see?” McCabe said after dinner, when Poppy and Grace were washing the dishes. “I’m a good Catholic and all that, but I’m not thick about it, see? Now Rome is great, I’ll tell you, but me and Grace have just come for two different reasons.” And, describing the curve of phantom breast or buttock with his hand, he said with a long vaudeville wink: “Know what I mean, pal?”

  “I sure do, Mac,” said Cass benevolently.

  The fatal moment had arrived. The transmogrified Mineola Eve, proffering forbidden fruit. “Say,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “You look like it’s been a long time since you had the real American article. How about some Old McCabe?”

  He was not joking, and Old McCabe was no fiction: it was one hundred proof sour mash bourbon whiskey, bottled in Tennessee and sold in Mineola under McCabe’s own picturesque label (shamrocks, harp, Hibernian pipe), and he had a quart full of it in the sagging pocket of his mackintosh. Cass heard a groan, mingled in equal parts of joy and despondency, escape his lips as McCabe held the bottle, flashing amber, up to the light; he groaned and he fidgeted and he sweated and finally he said, in tones of purest affliction: “Well, Mac, I haven’t had any of that stuff since I left the States, and I’d like to. But I can’t.”

  “Watsa matter? It’s the real article, pal. I never travel without it.”

  “I can’t handle the booze,” he said simply. “It takes me. It gives me problems. I stick to a little wine. If you want to know the truth, I’m a whiskey-head. Also, Mac, I got an ulcer.”

  He might have known better than to temporize this: within an hour, during this the cruelest night of his recent reckoning, he was on his way to becoming the drunkest man in Rome. And why? Why! Why on this night, under these particular circumstances, with this foolish and irksome stranger? Why, after so lojig a struggle to keep his balance, should he go off now, on a dull drab night in Rome which demanded the stuff neither for celebration nor mourning? Why, he kept asking himself, as in despair and in rapid succession he downed three half-tumblers full, straight, was he such a weak-kneed slob, unless he had simply been set down in a situation over which he had utterly no control? Suddenly (this was when McCabe, moist-mouthed and stripped to his red, white, and blue suspenders, had begun a series of gamy Ir
ish jokes, full of Pats and Mikes and begorras) he began to wonder if this storekeeper were not really a sort of bizarre advocatus diaboli, sent not merely to test but to prove, through the irresistible sour mash, his inability to survive in the world of his own will. Mother of God, he thought as with mumbling lips he downed his third glass, I’m slipping again. But Old McCabe was, in truth, the real article: Cass began to glow inwardly and outwardly and all around; he abandoned himself to the jokes, hee-hawing with mouth wide-open and, like the meanest smoking car poltroon, slapping his haunches, rooting at his crotch, and telling McCabe a few of his own. When “the girls” returned from the kitchen, half an hour later, his face was aflame, he had torn off his tie, he was awash in sweat, and he was prancing the room like a billygoat.

  “So this Irishman was on the train,” he was saying, “next to this little Middle Europe Jew who couldn’t read English and kept asking him to translate from the newspaper. So this Irishman said to himself, I’ll play a joke on this little guy.’—You know this one?”

  “Cass Kinsolving!” He heard behind him Poppy’s cry of distress. “Oh, Cass, you’ve started all over again!”

  “Hush, Poppy! I’m telling a story!”

  “But, Cass—”


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