Set this house on fire, p.40
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       Set This House on Fire, p.40

           William Styron

  “So every time the Jew would ask ‘What’s this?’ the Irishman would say something like ‘syphilis’ or ‘Gonorrhea’ or—”

  “Cass! You listen to me!”

  “So finally the Jew said, ‘What’s this mean? This word right here,’ and the Irishman said, ‘That means the clap.’ So the Jew just shook his head slowly back and forth and said, ‘Oy! Is that Pope a sick man!”

  “Haw haw haw!” McCabe roared, rolling back on the couch. “Haw haw haw haw haw!”

  Limp himself with mirth, free now of despair, regrets, recriminations, he wheeled about to face Poppy’s unhappiness: “You said you wouldn’t any more!”

  “I was kidding,” he said, beaming, throwing an arm around her. “Forgot what fun it was.”

  She jerked away from him. For a moment her mouth parted, trembling on speech. Then, as if canceling whatever it had been in her mind to say (God love her, he thought in a dreamy haze, she has never once nagged me in her life), she cast McCabe a ruinous look, turned silently about and left the room, either unwilling or unable to see him once more embrace his demon. She slammed the bedroom door.

  Then strange things happened. Grace, still prim and aloof for a while, slowly dropped her guard and, prompted by her husband’s loud and deprecating wisecracks ("Come on, Gracie, don’t be a drag, so it’s Lent, you haven’t swore off the Old McCabe."), sampled some of the product; finding it as good as ever, she soon became well lubricated, loose of tongue and hair-do, and by midnight, just before their game of three-handed blackjack began, she had abandoned all airs and religiosity, hinting with a snicker that she might also have come to Rome “to pick up a couple of alligator bags,” and letting slip several hells and goddams. Cass should have known better than to gamble when drunk (especially, it gradually dawned on him, with someone like McCabe, who, holding his liquor like a grenadier, quickly dropped all pretense at conviviality and settled down to the game with falcon eye and stony hand), but when McCabe had said, ‘How’s about a little cards?’ it had been in the nature of a clarion and resistless cry: of all his memories of the war, poker was the one remaining which had a shred of decency, of charm. He was—at least he had been in the past—an expert. Indeed, a virtuoso. It had even brought him, in his Marine Corps outfit, a kind of middling fame. Money in those days, accumulated pay, meant nothing. On half a dozen Pacific islands, in hotel rooms in Hawaii, on stateside bivouacs, and in the steaming holds of Navy transports he had won and lost what would have been, for him, a prodigal fortune at any time; once in a three-day game in New Zealand he had won sixteen thousand dollars, only to lose all of it within a week in a luckless and inferior game of craps. Once he had won over four thousand dollars in a single hand, by the skin of his teeth, to be sure—on an inside straight touched by the hand of the Almighty. And once, on the psychiatric ward of the naval hospital in San Francisco, playing with an accredited schizophrenic, two constitutional psychopathic inferiors, and a D.U. (Diagnosis Undetermined) like himself, he had won twenty-eight million dollars, and a sense of triumph that was not diminished by the quixotic nature of the stakes. He loved the cards, he had not played—though he always lugged with him cards and chips wherever he went—since he had been in Europe, and he fell to with passion (God knew they needed the money) and with the illusion that he would clean out the dreary McCabes—which was a mistake. If the Old McCabe had been the proscribed apple, it was the game of blackjack through which he found himself expelled from the Garden.

  Tense and quiet, the brief camaraderie gone, the three of them played through the early hours of the morning; groggily, hazily, almost hypnotically, he watched the whiskey in the bottle (he alone now drinking) fall to the mid-point level, then lower, shook his head from time to time to keep his swiftly blurring mind in focus, and wondered why he seemed to be losing in such a headlong rush. It was his own reckless fault, he thought, for setting so high the limit of the bets—three hundred lire, or roughly fifty cents; even so, drunk or not, or simply rusty, he had had too good a set of cards—nineteens, twenties all along—to have lost by one o’clock nearly all of his available cash. By one-thirty he was out of pocket eighteen thousand lire and he was forced to go to the kitchen, to rummage around in the dark and pluck ten thousand more from the tea can which served as Poppy’s household exchequer. Bleeding God, he thought as he stumbled back through the shadows, I’m acting like a bum in the flicks; we just don’t have this kind of cash to throw away. Sitting down heavily, he glanced squint-eyed at the McCabes. Rapt in stony concentration, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, cold-sober, and silent save for the brisk, peremptory way they each muttered “Hit” or “Stick,” in the tone of someone who had played cards for profit all his life, they had lost all aspect of the devout pilgrims they had first pretended to be, transformed like twin Cinderellas by the alchemy of midnight into avid, consecrated, hungry sharks. And for the life of him, Cass could not get a blackjack, that fortunate marriage of ace and face-card which would make McCabe relinquish the deal. They gave him the willies, these two dough-faced Micks; he felt ganged-up on, and he saw the ten thousand lire begin to vanish like water poured down a drain. He beat McCabe three times running; he thought his luck was changing. The deal passed from McCabe to Grace; Cass lost again, with a consecutiveness of ill-luck that made him writhe inside and caused the sweat to pop out in droplets on his face. Then he got the deal on his first and only blackjack: the deal lasted two hands, on both of which he lost, and reverted once more to McCabe.

  “Mothera God!” he cried out in disgust, as for the fifteenth time his ace and nine—a solid twenty—were beaten by McCabe’s twenty-one. “You don’t need no Pope, Mac. You got the goddamdest luck I ever saw.” He was down once more to a dollar’s worth of lire.

  “I know what you mean, pal,” said McCabe, in his longest speech of the game. “That’s the way the breaks run sometime. Gimme a match, will you, Gracie?”

  By then it was past two o’clock. Although he was still functioning after a fashion—functioning in the realm of the game, at least, taking no rash chances, cautious when caution was called for, forcing his luck, such as it was, only to the most barely tolerable limit —the whiskey, he knew, had begun to work upon his mind a most un-subtle demolition. He felt hemmed-in, depressed, claustrophobic. The room had suffered a slight, secret yet nonetheless weird and unnerving displacement of dimension: smaller now, wreathed in clouds of smoke, it seemed almost to have become tilted a bit—somehow with a premonition of menace—like the cabin of a ship at sea moving slantwise in the troubled yet still noiseless waters that presage a violent storm. His head was giddy (it had just been so long, he kept thinking) and an uncomfortable nausea had begun to gurgle at the pit of his stomach, and from the high pitch of his early delight he had been brought down—by his tragic losses, by a surfeit of booze, maybe both—to the clammiest sort of anxiety and depression. And it was symptomatic of the deep-dyed lush he was, he thought even while ritualistically he groped for the bottle, that he should assume that a whole lot more of the Old McCabe could ease all of these problems.

  “Have another,” he heard himself saying thickly to Grace, holding out the bottle, which was (inconceivably!) only a third full. “How ’bout some more the Ole Mac here?”

  Whatever slight inebriety had loosened her up before had fled from her, in spirit and in countenance. Her face was as cold-looking as a clamshell. “Me and Mac don’t believe in mixing liquor and the cards,” she said austerely, shuffling the deck like a prestidigitator.

  Intolerance, of the sort Cass bore toward Catholics in general and the Irish in particular, breeds brooding; brooding breeds suspicion; and suspicion, in this case mingled with financial loss and an out-of-hand drunkenness, breeds an infuriate conviction. The conviction being that night, as he stood in the dark once more groping for lire in Poppy’s tea-can treasury, that between the two of them the McCabes of Mineola comprised a crooked house. In the darkness he felt his brain lurch like a seesaw; pinpoints of ruby-red fire do
tted his vision, and he swayed top-heavy against the sink, cracking his elbow. He drew out from the can a fistful of lire—greasy, shredded, of all denominations; as he did so, it occurred to him, in a kind of explosive and vindictive flash, in an access of imagination or fantasy so intense that it was truer than truth, that McCabe, the miserable sonofabitch, had been bottomdealing from the deck throughout the entire game. Thrice-punctured Christ! he thought. He had been trusting, stupid, and as blind as a bat. Pilgrims your ass! They were two miserable lowbrow suburban sharpers, and they had tried to take him for the sucker that he deserved, but at this point, by God, refused, to be. Pros they were, an old-time Mississippi twosome, crooks in pietists’ clothes who had lushed him up, fattened him for the kill, and plucked him clean as a pullet. A tremendous belch tore itself from his gorge, reverberating around the black kitchen. He felt a damp and queasy sensation in his palm, and drew back his hand from the place where he had propped it, unfeeling, in a plate of cold spaghetti. He began to tremble in total, towering, Protestant wrath. And though his wrath was a moral one, it was also the wholly uncomplicated one at having been taken by these sharp punks, who should have assumed that he, disciplined through a thousand deadly games (for stakes, not for peanuts) to sniff out the slightest funny-business or skulduggery, was too dumb to detect a simple bottom-deal, and would be blind to what (and of this he was sure!) had been going on all along, revealed by the flesh of McCabe’s somewhat pudgy knuckle—middle finger, left hand—as he performed his slippery fraud. Well, we’ll see about that! he thought. And he lumbered grim as Armageddon back into the living room, lurched into his chair, and said: “Deal!”

  “What’d you say?” said McCabe.

  “Deal! And bury and burn those goddam cards, this time.”

  “Don’t get touchy, pal. We all have bad nights every—”

  “Deal, I said. Up the limit.”

  “What?” said McCabe incredulously.

  “Up the limit! One thousand lire.”

  “Well, it suits me if it suits you.”

  Cass watched him narrowly, or as narrowly as he could with his inflamed, wayward, by now nearly antipodean eyes. McCabe was not a frail man by any means: he had chunky, solid shoulders and beefy hands and there was a sort of flinty Celtic meanness in his face that indicated he might be capable of a decent scrap. Yet Cass, unworried, even eager, knew he could be handled. Boiling now, and itching, Cass watched him as he dealt the cards—to him first, then to Grace, then to himself. There was no revelatory flicker of knuckle-skin beneath the deck; Cass made a clucking sound, aloud, beneath his tongue: the bastard was playing it cool, he thought, perhaps he even knew that someone had pegged him for the crook he was. Cass had three thousand lire riding on a five and a six, showing, and a seven in the hole—a restful eighteen. “Good,” he said. Grace stuck. McCabe turned up his cards, said, “Pay twenty,” and took the pot.

  “Baby, you’re hot as a firecracker,” said Grace, in a marveling voice. To be both crooked and lucky was just too much. As McCabe dealt again, Cass took the bottle in both hands, somewhat like a baby, and downed in raw flaming gulps what was left of the whiskey to its palest dregs: perhaps to forestall what happened then and what seemed “forever after,” he should have made a libation to the gods of Rome; perhaps not even the gods can hinder a greased slide down toward disaster; either way, as he felt his brain reel and rock with instant concussion and, still gasping like a fish, caught what was—or what seemed to be—a cheating finger flashing white across the moist ruin of his vision, he knew with despair that he was gone again for good. “McCabe!” he roared. “You bottom-dealing swine!” And it took him no more than two brief seconds to fling off his glasses, heave the bottle over his shoulder, and, like a man swimming frantic strokes underwater, to flounder across the collapsing and wildly splintering card table, amid cards and chips and clouds of floating paper money, where he fell with outstretched, encircling hands upon the horrified McCabe.

  Little else—try as he might—could he ever remember. He had begun to black out only seconds before he attacked McCabe, so that all that happened afterwards receded by degrees ever more dimly yet certainly into oblivion. He remembered Grace’s screams, unbelievable sounds—ear-splitting, cataclysmic: the voice of a woman in quadruple childbirth or in the throes of rape —high-pitched, relentless, and everlasting. He remembered Mc-Cabe’s front tooth splitting his own knuckle, painlessly, as he landed a lucky blow in a fight where all else seemed to be roundhouse swings, aimless staggerings, sightless and punch-drunk wrath. He remembered McCabe’s hairy fist as it connected with his eye, blinding him. He remembered more of Grace’s screams. At some point he remembered Poppy and the children, screaming too, and the tenants above and below all screaming—Zitti! Silen zio!Basta!—and the taste of blood in his mouth. He remembered getting a strong fingernail-splitting grip on McCabe’s pants, finally, and hurling him out into the night. He remembered retrieving his glasses and stuffing his pockets with lire—his own and McCabe’s —and staggering away from the place. And that was all.

  When finally he came to, he knew neither where he was nor how he had gotten there nor the hour of the day or night. He was in a shuttered, silent room, dark as Hades; his head ached and throbbed like a monstrous boil, as did his hand and his halfclosed eye, and he was lying naked on a bed. For long perplexing minutes he grappled with the question of how came he there, and when, and why; there was a terrifying instant when he could not recall his own name. The terror passed. The hell with it. All identity had fled him and he lay there quietly breathing—pulsing, rather, like some low amoebic form of marine life—without fear or anxiety or sensation of any kind, save for pain, which he tried to exorcise through a vain attempt at going back to sleep. After a time, by the slowest of stages, he regained his bearings; memory and reality came slipping back, as did his name, which he spelled out slowly to himself—K-i-n-s—with a sense of charm and discovery, like a young lover. Then a cold crazy panic seized him and he shot out of bed, padding clumsily about on icy tiles until he found a light switch, turned it on, and in a fulllength mirror stood revealed as naked as Adam, one-eyed, bruised, hair upended like a Hottentot’s, standing half-frozen in a hotel room so foul and sleazy that it would have shamed a Panama brothel. An antiseptic smell floated on the air. Dirt in great sausage-shaped cylinders festooned the moldings of the walls, the rungs of two rickety chairs, the edges of a tattered rug. Of furniture, beyond the bed and chairs, there was none; for plumbing there was a plugged-up bidet, gorged with some unspeakable liquid that gulped softly and stagnantly. As for decoration there was only the omnipresent Virgin, gazing down on the grizzly sagging bed where, amnesically and with the collaboration of God knew whom, he had added his chapter to its dateless chronicle of fornication. Whoever she was (and try as he might with his bursting head to recall her, he could not; he might as well have gone to bed with a wraith) she had been thorough: not only had she taken all his money, down to the most frayed and crumbling five-lire note, but she had managed to make off with all of his clothes. Even his underwear was gone. No—charitable whore!—she had left him his glasses; these he found on the floor near the bed, along with his beret, which, being dilapidated, he supposed she couldn’t pawn, like the glasses. He put the glasses on, and the beret, and gazed at himself in the mirror: noble animal. His pelvic bones ached from the sinister, Lethean romp; looking down, catching sight of something that moved, he saw that she had left him, too, what appeared to be all the vermin in Rome —if that in truth was where he was. Murder! he thought. Murder! Triple bloody murder!

  So he had no money, no clothes; recalling the night before (if it really was only the night before), he had no doubt that he was being hunted by the police, by the Pope, by the right honorable lady ambassador Mrs. Luce herself. He had a case of crabs. He was certain his finger was broken. He was on the verge of catching pneumonia in an unheated hotel room in a remote part of Italy (at least he was sure it was Italy) whose location he did not know. He had
had, indeed, the debauch he had so long pined for —and one must pay—but did he really deserve this disheveled ending? His plight, in its quality of helplessness and exposure, seemed the closest possible approach in reality to that universal nightmare where one passes in nude parade down the crowded main street of some city—vulnerable, all divulged, without a fig leaf, without anything. There was only one thing to do, at least at that moment, and he did it: he crawled back into the lascivious bed and lay there, bereted, bespectacled, fiercely scratching, pondering a way out of his low condition.

  Then who was it that called him? And from whence did it come, that rapturous voice? Was it only some place in his mind’s imagining—some island or magic coast never seen on earth—or was it in all truth a land, previsioned, real, where he knew that some fine day he’d set down his lover’s triumphant feet? He put up a hand to his aching brow, feeling sweat there now, and fever. Water! he thought. Water! Somewhere in the depths of the building a door slammed hugely, an explosion that brought forth from the woodwork a tribe of affrighted bugs; drowsily watching them shuttle about in the blinding light, he fell once more, terrifyingly, into sleep, dropping not into the oblivion he had so gluttonously yearned for but dreaming of that old abominable seascape upon which, floating helpless as a twig, he found himself eternally undone and foundering. Here, so familiar, was the black gulf, the solitary unpeopled coast rimmed round by palm trees, by the weathered slopes of volcanoes which from horizon to horizon sent plumes of smoke into a sickly overcast sky, devoid of sunlight, troubled by premonitions of thunder. Here on this gulf, in a tiny boat so frail that each black foamy wave threatened to swamp it, he was rowing with confused, exhausting strokes toward an island far out to sea where amid whirling carrousels and orange blossoms and the black eyes of girls there existed a slumberous southern repose so sweet, so voluptuous, so soothing to his flayed and bedeviled senses that not to reach it would mean his ruin and his end. And from somewhere in the depths of this green vision one single girl’s voice called to him in a strange language filled with soft liquid syllables, remote, importunate, and ripe with the promise of love. Love me! she cried, in those words he could not fathom. Love me, and I shall be all salvation. Yet now as he stroked on the heavy oars he seemed to be carried far and away from the voice, borne even more perilously toward the land; huge currents and riptides washed him toward the barren inhospitable shore: a storm blew up, the gulf became as black as night, and upon the horizon there sprang to life a forest of whirling waterspouts, bearing down upon him as darkly as vengeful tornadoes from the western plains. The waves beat against him, black and cold, and with the waves came an explosion of torrential rain. In cataclysm, the great range of volcanoes erupted fire; the marvelous green coast or island, the enchanted land unseen at his back, perishing with its freight of unborn and untasted love, toppled into the sea with a hissing noise— “Dio non esiste!” he heard himself shriek—as at last one black and mountainous wave, washed to this gulf as if from the uttermost boundaries of the earth, bore him up and up through a sky snowy with the falling bodies of gulls, and descending now, onto the wretched and irremediable shore… .

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