Set this house on fire, p.4
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       Set This House on Fire, p.4

           William Styron

  It was shadowy and quiet around my cafe. From the restaurants the American sojourners had departed, leaving the square to a gang of children, a beggar scratching at a violin, and young priests with programs homeward-bound from some concert across the river and out this late, I guessed, by special dispensation. There was also Ava Gardner, who from her tattered billboard cast a peeled glance of vacancy toward the fountain, where eons of ooze had wrought, in place of beauty, an admirably weathered composure. It was a fine fountain and I gazed at it for a long time. In the wings of the church behind, blue in shadows, slumberous pigeons clucked and rustled and all was quiet. For a while, sitting there, I tried to feel that the evening was momentous, but I was uninspired, my thoughts tepid and shallow. Vaguely I had the sense that I was at some decisive instant in my life, with the most exciting part of my youth behind me, but this thought left me unstirred. My mood was dangerously close to self-pity; I felt like someone sitting amid the bunting and splendor of his own farewell party, at which nobody at all turned up.

  The beer was good; warm air blew over me with the smell of coffee, then of flowers, and I had a fleeting unhappy paroxysm of goatish lust. Then like stiffened silver one chime broke from the campanile high above, the half-hour. A gang of boys came racing by, the square for an instant alive in a scamper of footsteps, a flurry of naked heels. A restaurant closed for the night with a roar of descending shutters, and from afar someone called out “Tommasino!”—a summery voice, dying in the alleyways, touched with heat and fatigue and sleep.

  For a while after this the square was deserted. Once a cat loped across my gaze with a squint-eyed, piratical look and a suave grin. Bent on who knows what unholy mission, he cruised up over the fountain steps, a yellow blur, and plunged dauntlessly into the shadows. Then all was serene and decorous once more, the heavens clear, starry, the air aromatic with blossoms, the fountain leaking slow trickling notes of water, like memorandums. I sat until the bell struck again, when the waiter came near, insinuating with a yawn the lateness of the hour. I paid him and sat there for one final moment, inhaling the odor of flowers. Then I got up and took my last look at Rome: at fountains, pigeons, cats, and priests, a crowd of whom came by just as I arose, two licking at ice cream cones, two gossiping in Irish—Me old mother gave me this—two clutching at missals and breathing soft flutters of prayer—the cloaks of all trembling like banners of mourning, and disappearing, black against a blacker black, up the moonless slope of Gianicolo, toward some good cloister. …

  Then, driving south across dark Campania, I felt a great sense of liberation, but I hadn’t reckoned on the effect of yesterday’s harassments. This came later; for an hour or so after leaving Rome I experienced a rowdy euphoria and a sudden love for the Italian night; for the remarkable stars above, for the towns silhouetted on the hilltops, for the wind—smelling of countryside, of earth, of manure and vegetation—which cooled me off and set the sleeves of my garments, piled up behind me, to chattering like pennants. I had the top down; I drove fast, because the highway was straight and empty, and I bawled out songs on the wind. My headlights kindled fire in long lanes of poplars, the underbellies of their leaves a treasure of rustling silver, and in sleeping villages with Latin-book names—Aprilia and Pontinia—as white and as hushed as sepulchers, with only the dogs abroad. Above me bright stars wheeled across the heavens, but south in the open country all was black as death, without houses or familiar outlines, and stretching out on all sides into infinite darkness. My expansive mood began to fade about here. For miles at a stretch I could see nothing at all on either side of me—no homes, no humans, no growing things—nothing save the encompassing night. I began to feel strictly alone, and except for the noise of the car to remind me otherwise, adrift in a boat, rudderless and without course upon a black and starlit ocean. Then abruptly I was in cliff country, ascending the flanks of gaunt, wounded hills where nothing grew and no one lived, a wilderness of dried-up riverbeds and parched ravines, the hangout of thieves. I turned on the radio, and found only chill comfort: a woman’s voice announcing “Un po’ di allegria negli Spikes Jones”; then from far off in Monte Carlo a faint, windy snatch of Beethoven, which soon dimmed away, becoming silent altogether. The American Army station in Germany was signing off in a hubbub of noise, with a program called the Hillbilly Gasthaus. There was something in this liaison of tongues and in the harmony of guitars and banjos and fiddles, moaning among these forsaken hills, which gripped me with anxiety; but yellowish light shone ahead, I plummeted down toward the coast, and soon was in the town of Formia, where the warm sea was rolling in from Sardinia.

  All of a sudden exhaustion smote me like a fist. I came to a dead halt.

  For some reason I date the events at Sambuco—at least my participation in them—from this moment. Had I been able to sleep easily that night, I might very well have been spared my trouble of the next day. Without that misadventure, I most surely would have arrived at Sambuco as fresh as a buttercup: not haggard, shattered, and forlorn, my composure hopelessly unmoored, and cursed with a sort of skittish, haunted depletion of nerves from which I never quite recovered. But second thoughts are no good. At that point I was worn out—face numb, eyeballs aflame, legs and arms sore at every joint. All of the hotels were shut down for the night, or displayed no-vacancy signs. So I drove onto a jetty overlooking the harbor, there put the top up, and settled back for sleep. The mosquitoes wouldn’t let me alone. Frequenters of resorts, big July mosquitoes wet and gross with a summer’s licentiousness, they bore down upon me on the shore breeze, whining with excitement and mooning ceaselessly about my ears. After an hour’s battle I gave up and closed the windows. The car was soon an oven, stifling and breathless, in which only barely dozing I dreamed the exhausting nightmares of half-sleep. Half a dozen times I was aroused to see a flock of stars go slipping over the horizon, then I dropped back into clammy slumber, where odd smells invaded my dreams, breaths out of time past—low tide at home in Virginia, mud and seaweed, fish nets drying in the sun.

  When finally I awoke I cocked one sore eye open in the full blast of morning light. Away off, I could hear people yelling and splashing in the waves; above, peering down at me through the windshield, were two rueful, bearded faces.

  “È morto?” I heard one ask the other.

  “Un inglese. Soffocato.”

  When I stirred, the two old men retreated slowly off across the sand, with looks of deep mystery. It was past nine o’clock; I was drenched in sweat, with a violent headache, and my body had that jittery feeling which accompanies a hangover. I knew I should be on my way, and was—after coffee and a wilted bun in a beachside joint thronged with strident Romans in bathing suits, all of them swilling Coca-Cola.

  Such is the power of certain calamities on the mind that, once freed of the initial shock, one is able to view with bright clarity all the events leading up to the actual blow. The tone, the mood, the character of whatever transpired before, takes on the gray hue, itself, of disaster and is embalmed in memory with an awful sense of predestination. It is in such a way that I remember the road out of Formia, through Naples and beyond. Leaving the sea, the highway became wide and straight again. But it was Saturday, market day, and the road was swarming with traffic—wagons and carts piled high with produce and fodder, towed by donkeys, all moving so leisurely as to appear like sinister, stationary objects in my path. The sun rose higher and higher over the dusty countryside. Its fire settled down upon the hills; close by stood fields of blighted corn and trees in windless, shriveling groves. Up from the highway the heat rose in greasy waves. And through these waves, roaring, balefully glittering, and often straight at me, came a devil’s pageant of vehicles—motorscooters and buses loaded down with vacationers, and caravans of hurtling cars. There were huge trucks, too, carrying gasoline, whipping past me at seventy and leaving a trail of scalding blue vapor on the air. Near Capua, outside of Naples, there was an epidemic of sheep into which I almost skidded, and I had to poke a gingerly path
among their sad, expressively wagging behinds. In spite of the sun I put the top down again to get the wind. I also remember turning on the radio again, this time for distraction. By the time I reached the outskirts of Naples the steering wheel was slippery with perspiration. To my disgust I found myself sniveling with tension and with fatigue and murmuring aloud words of courage.

  But it was the Alfa Romeo on the Autostrada to Pompei that led to my downfall. I had passed through Naples by then, for a brief moment calm, thinking that with only an hour more to go Sambuco was in the bag. There was less traffic; it was nearly noon, lunchtime, when most Italians abandon the road to purposeful Anglo-Saxons. It seemed to have turned cooler—though no doubt I was deceived—and I relaxed for the first time, diverted by the outer suburbs of the city, where black smoke was billowing up from a thousand factory chimneys. The noise I heard behind me was abrupt and thunderous, a shocking din which partook both of a salvo of rockets and an airplane in take-off, and above this, pervading it all, a thin, ominous, hurrying whine, as of the approach of a flight of wasps or bees; my eyes sought the mirror, where I saw it bearing down on me in savage haste—the snout of a big black car. With a foretaste of doom and of the fading beauty of life I composed myself to accept a rear-end collision, and a tight, goosey, half-despairing, half-gluttonous feeling swept over me as I watched it become larger and larger, barreling remorselessly on. Five yards from my tail the car swerved, slowed, came abreast: I beheld a fat young Neapolitan, one hand limp and cocky on the wheel, his girl friend all but in his lap, both of them grinning like sharks. We drove side by side for a moment, perilously swaying; then he was off and away with a noise like a string of firecrackers, and with the central finger of one fist raised in ripe phallic tribute. I tore after him for a while, gave up the chase, and fell into aching oppressive woolgathering. My heart was full of murder. I was only dreaming of revenge, doing sixty, when, a little beyond Pompei, I smashed broadside into the motorscooter. …

  Luciano di Lieto: a liquid, resourceful name, one fit for a trapeze artist, or a writer of sonnets, or an explorer of the Antilles, a name certainly deserving more in the way of talents than those of the person who bore it. By turns hod carrier, road worker, peddler of erotic trinkets at the local ruins, a pickpocket so inept as to earn from the police the nickname “Fessacchiotto”—the Stumblebum—the man di Lieto was a triumph of stunted endowments. One day at the age of twelve he poked a meddlesome hand around in the engine of an automobile, and was shorn of two fingers, clipped off neatly by the fan. A few years later, plunged into some adolescent daydream, he wandered in front of a Naples streetcar, breaking both legs and leaving one elbow impaired forever. Only months after this, barely out of his casts, experimenting with fireworks at a seaside festa, he bent his dark, crazy regard down upon the muzzle of a Roman candle, and blew out his right eye. When I slammed into him he was twenty-three and in the fever of early manhood. All of these facts were revealed to me before the ambulance came, and perhaps no more than an hour past that moment when di Lieto came roaring out of a side road on a sputtering Lambretta and into my path, legs akimbo, poised tautly forward like a jockey, hair wild and rampant over his blasted vision, mouth and jaws working with hoots of joy even as I braked frantically on squealing rubber and plowed into him. It seemed as if those joyful cries were one and a part of the collision itself, preceding it for a chilling second before I even saw him and going on and on after the moment of rackety impact, when I sent the motorscooter flying forty feet up the road and kept skidding helplessly on, watching the blur of gray denim overalls and tousled black hair, still hooting, bounce up over the front of the car. Clawing at space, he seemed to suspend there for a moment in mid-air, before gliding with white floundering legs and arms across the hood of the car toward me, shattering the windshield in an icy explosion of glass. Like a collapsed puppet dangling on strings, he floated away past me and was gone. I finally came to a stop on the other side of the road in a shower of flip-flopping tennis balls, the radio undone by the impact and alive with deafening crackles and peeps.

  When I recovered, I brushed the glass from my lap and stole shakily out of the car. I found myself alone with di Lieto, who lay face-up in the road, blood trickling gently from nose and ears, and with a sort of lopsided, dreamy expression on his features, part agony, part a smile, as if in this mindless repose he were being borne yearningly, at last, through the floodgates of his destiny. I gazed down at him, numb with shock and horror. He was still breathing but rather tentatively; one eye socket was pink and sunken (I thought this my doing), and with a grisly feeling I glanced around me for the missing eye. For a long while, or so it seemed, no one was around and no one came: it was a country crossroad, high noon in the sultry summertime, with insects humming and the smell of weeds, and with hawks that looked like buzzards circling high over the blazing fields. For what felt like an endless time I kept trampling around the prostrate di Lieto, reeling with shock and heaving shudders of anguish.

  What followed immediately afterward seemed to be only a grotesque fantasia of events lacking sequence or order, in which I am able to pick out mostly random impressions, as of scenes from a movie film dimly remembered. I do recall finally a car moving out of the horizon, a dusty rattletrap weaving leisurely, which I hailed, and then two Pompeian matrons, profoundly emancipated, fuddled with wine, in rustles and flounces of shiny black silk, who debarked unsteadily from the heap and blinked in the dazzling sunlight, uncomprehending. “What is this here?” they murmured, stooping over di Lieto, and then spied the blood, clutched their hands to their breasts, and commenced sending up boozy entreaties to the Pompeian Madonna. “Santa Maria del Rosario! Povero ragazzo!” What happened to him? they cried. One, with an incomprehension that added brutal fire to the hellishness of the moment, asked me if he had fallen from a tree; immediately they wanted to pour water on him, turn him over, move him. I tried to tell them he must not be touched; only when my voice had risen to a hoarse cracked shout did they stop their outcry and clatter back to town for help.

  In the long space that followed I sensed the heights of Vesuvius looming oppressive at my back. I sat on the bumper of the car and gazed toward di Lieto, who kept pluckily breathing, twitching a little and awaiting our rescue: it came at last and in a deluge. Cars began to stop, and trucks and carts; as if summoned there by hungry intuition a small village full of people appeared at the spot, trooping from all four directions toward the crossroad, galloping in clouds of dust across the fields. It was as if in an instant the desolate scene had been transformed into one of bustling life, every soul for miles gathered to the place with the instinct of a flock of homing, weather-wise birds. I remember only sitting head in hands on the bumper while they milled about, bending over di Lieto, pressing their ears to his chest for the heartbeat and making solemn pronouncements. “It’s just a concussion,” one said. “No,” said another, an old stripped-to-the-waist farmer with skin burnt brown as a mummy, “his spine is broken. That’s why we mustn’t move him. Look, see how he twitches in the legs. That’s always the sign of a broken spine.” The crowd shuffled, jabbered away in a spirit both grave and somehow enraptured; many had brought parts of their interrupted lunches; they stood there looking on contentedly, munching on bread and cheese and passing around bottles of wine. A man asked me gently how I felt and if I was hurt; someone else gave me a shot of brandy, which quickly set me to retching. “Fessacchiotto,” I heard a glum voice say through the spinning blue as I heaved, “the Stumblebum finally caught it.” Then I saw two motorcycle cops, helmeted like spacemen, brake to a stop at the crossroad. They shooed the crowd toward the ditches like a swarm of buzzing flies and forthwith set up camp, making lordly measurements of my skid marks, stalking around the car and unearthing all sorts of data.

  “Please. You going these machine?” one said deferentially.

  “I speak your language,” I told him.

  “Allora, va bene.” When the collision occurred, was the Lambretta approaching
the highway from the right or from the left? He was a conscientious-looking man in wringing poplin, very polite, and he began jotting down information in a notebook the size of a ledger.

  “He was coming from the left,” I said, “which I think you’ll be able to tell easily from the position of the Lambretta. I couldn’t help hitting him. It’s not my fault, anyway. In the meanwhile the man lies there dying. Would you be kind enough to tell me where the ambulance is?”

  “Nome?” he asked genially, ignoring the question.

  “Peter Charles Leverett,” I said, spelling it out.

  “Nato dove e quando?”

  “In Port Warwick, Virginia, 14 April 1925.”

  “Dove Port Warwick, Virginia? Inghilterra?”

  “The U.S.A.”I said.

  “Ah, bene. Allora, vostro padre? Nome?”

  “Alfred Leverett.”

  “Nato dove e quando?”

  “In Suffolk, Virginia, U.S.A. I don’t know when, exactly. Make it 1886.”

  “Vostra madre?”

  “Oh, for Christ sake,” I said.


  “Flora Margaret McKee. San Francisco, California, U.S.A. Put down 1900. Listen, could you tell me when the ambulance is coming if it is and, if not, whether it would be possible to put him in one of those cars or trucks and drive him to Naples? I think he’s in a grave condition.”

  To try to get anything across to him was like casting notes in bottles upon the limitless deep. In his kindly, bland, unruffled fashion he kept scribbling in his ledger, examining my passport and papers while the fierce sun beat down on us and the crowd shuffled and stirred upon the margin of the crossroad like murmurous watchers at some heathen ritual. At its focus, flat on his back, asprawl in sacrificial repose, di Lieto lay with his tangled sweet look of liberation and racking ecstasy, eyes half-closed and dreaming, attracting flies. Speaking of California, the cop went on cheerfully, his wife’s uncle lived there, or so he believed, in a place called Vilks Bari, where he earned a good living as a worker of mines. Was I aware of that place? And was it near Hollywood? Now in regard to the man in the road, he continued, trying to allay my distress, I would be in severe legal trouble indeed, as I no doubt already knew, had the Lambretta approached from the right instead of from the left, which, from the evidence at hand—the skid marks, the position of the victim and of the Lambretta itself —it no doubt had; as it was, I was free to go at any time, provided I could put my car into operation, provided too I supply him with my next address in Italy (a detail, since I most certainly would not have to go to court, the indications of blame being so overwhelmingly in my favor); as for the man himself, di Lieto—“Fessacchiotto”—he had been spoiling for such a disaster for ten years (had I not been told by someone already about this thieving simpleton—his fingers, his streetcar accident, his eye?) and he had no one but himself to reproach if he should die on the spot, though it is true he was not an evil man, and death is bitter, in verità, even for imbeciles.

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