Set this house on fire, p.41
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       Set This House on Fire, p.41

           William Styron

  “Non c’è Dio! he found himself sobbing, lying outstretched on the floor. “He is dead! He is dead!” And even as he awoke on the wet tiles the contracting, seashore rhythm of the dream still lingered, and he was again wafted in one long last dwindling shiver of memory, screaming, to his mean and worthless extermination. Light had filtered through the shutters; still he could not tell whether it was dawn or dusk… .

  Poppy came and got him, bearing a cardboard box full of clothes. He had mustered enough strength to bang on the door and yell, summoning a limping, evil-looking porter, whom he bribed with the promises of fortune to make the telephone call. The man also brought him a bottle full of water, which he downed at a gulp. Distraught and red-eyed as she was, Poppy was relieved to see him and—as always—was forgiving. In wrenching guilt over what he knew he had really done, he told her how—in a bar on the Piazza Mazzini—he had fallen in with bad company: two fuzzy-headed Somaliland Negroes who could scarcely speak Italian and who, dropping some tribal potion into his Strega, had rolled him for his money and his clothes. This Poppy believed implicitly, which aggravated his guilt. Bouncing homeward in a taxi through the morning light, he lay with his head in Poppy’s lap, suffering and suffering, and muttering recriminations. From her he discovered that the hotel had been on a miserable slum street far out off the Via Appia Nuova—barely in Rome at all—and that he had spent a full day and a full night in the place. It was Good Friday, with a salmon-streaked and radiant sky, touched with sorrow and hope, and the bells were silent all over Rome.


  With raw meat on his eye and a bandage over his cut finger, and with blue ointment smeared upon his nether parts, he convalesced, for three days grazing like a sick cow upon the ragged edges of sleep. The nightmare did not return, although he brooded about it a lot. What did it mean? Passionately he tried to make the dream give up its meaning; each detail was as clear in his mind as something which happened only yesterday, yet when he tried to put them all together he ended up with black ambiguous chaos. Perhaps, he thought, it was a species of madness.

  Be that as it was, he was hooked, he knew, hooked by the treacherous grape, and he felt that this time he’d be forced to ride the merry-go-round for a long, long spell. Above all, now, escape—the desire for flight, anywhere, so long as it was swift—loomed in his mind as the foremost necessity, thus bearing out the prophecy of Slotkin, the kindly old Navy brain doctor, who once had told Cass just that: “You will be running all your life.” His voice had been fatherly, and there had been in his eye the rueful look of one who had tried, but failed, to help runaways and escapists before; yet the words had stuck, and as Cass struggled to his feet on the day after Easter he remembered them, hating that dim old father symbol whose presence seemed fated to dog him until the day he died.

  One thing he knew was that he must head south again, and so he did—alone—and that is how he finally came to Sambuco.

  He was later able to recall some of his suicidal journey; in pouring rain, wobbling southward on his motorscooter, it was only a miracle (or perhaps Poppy’s tearful blessing, together with the steel Testament carried safely by her dumb brother Alfie all through the Normandy campaign, which she stuck into his breast pocket) that prevented his grappa-blurred trip from coming to an end beneath the wheels of some truck or bus. Rain poured down his neck, rivulets of water flowed into his shoes. He sang hymns to keep up his spirits, Methodist hymns, throbbing with passion, meekness, and love for a pansy savior. And He walks with me, he roared to the highway, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me that I am His own. Smitten with a sudden religious tic, giggling yet close to tears, he gulped grappa as he weaved steering with one hand down precipitous concrete slopes. At the Cross, at the Cross where I first saw the Light! Huge trucks passed him with their backwash drenching him to the skin; in the rear of one he thought he saw perched his old uncle, who waved a receding, remonstrating finger. And the burdens of my heart rolled away … A low, black, ancient Maserati veered close, skidding, brakes squealing in a mist of rain, and nearly clipped him off the road. Memory, in the form of an iridescent penumbra of tears, fogged his eyes. Blessed assurance—Jesus is mine! All Italy lay shrouded in wet and cold. Oh, what a foretaste of glory Divine! Presently he ceased singing, and lapped back moistly into dark inner recesses of his self. He brought the scooter into a semblance of control. What he was searching for, what impossible prize Or vision he was seeking, as he bumped along in the monstrous damp, he did not know; yet he felt some premonition not too far removed from delight when, toward noon, he saw the sun flame out over the slopes of Vesuvius and Naples below it, cluttered and blue, sea-girt, smoky, and as prodigious as Jerusalem. Yet he did not stop here, to eat, or even rest. Something impelled him on. Stiff and saddlesore, veering wildly as he sidestepped in and out of a web of trolley tracks, he put-putted down the drizzly Via Monteoliveto, assailed by a grim ecstasy of southern smells—of salt sea and pimientos and sewers —and a jazzy amorous hubbub, and snapping, black and insolent eyes and, quick as a wink, by a raucous pimp no more than ten and hardly higher than his knees, hideous and imperishable in his memory for the fluted blue cavity that replaced an ear, who trotted alongside and badgered him for five blocks about screwing his sister. “Hey, Joe, maybe you like my brother!” Maybe I would, Cass thought, with a sad strong inner stirring, thinking of a boy’s slim hips, maybe I would, I don’t seem to be making it with the ladies any more, but then banished the thought, banished the child with a few lire and a soft boot in the pants, throttling up as he found the road to Sorrento.

  Yet again it rained, and still he did not know why he pressed on. Between the snow-capped peak of Vesuvius and the calm dark bay, a jetty, seaweed-slimy in the low tide, lay poised like a cliff in the green of summer. At its edge three bare-legged urchins, shivering, and a solemn fat priest stood fishing in the downpour, and Cass paused thoughtfully, wondering if he had the talent to sketch the sweet and crazy scene—decided he didn’t, passed on. The grappa bottle was nearly empty. In Sorrento, in midafternoon, he found himself in a grimy bar somewhere at the edge of the sea, drinking Strega, learning songs in tongue-twisting dialect from a sweaty barkeep in B.V.D.’s, playing mechanical football with a cross-eyed boy in American Army clothes, and washing his hands at a scummy sink whose drain emptied onto the water fifty feet below; there, inanely winding his watch, he fumbled it into the sea with a splash, and was immediately dissolved in loony grief. “Sono pazzo!” he exclaimed tearfully to the barkeep. “I’m mad! Mad!” And before he knew it he was on his motorscooter again, blundering around the hairpin turns toward Positano and Amalfi. Above Positano he blew a tire, squatted by the roadside and repaired it with numb fingers. Farther on he ran out of gas, which in terms of Sambuco was either a curse or a blessing, depending upon how one views all that came after. For as he stood drenched at the roadside, a truck carrying barrels of wine drew to a halt, and from one window a most peculiar face peered out. Hooked like a scimitar, a majestic nose rode adventurously forth, dominating, indeed almost overshadowing, the face; upon its stately arch small wens were sprinkled like pumpkin seeds and from the two caverns beneath, great thickets of hair sprouted black and luxuriant. Of the chin there was almost nothing: above the point where it should have been, and shadowed almost to obscurity by the huge bowsprit of a nose, a mouth with thin red lips described a V-shaped smile, wet and lubricious. Something about the man’s face, the nose especially, gave it a look at once humorous and benign, like a cross between Punch and Torquemada; his hair, like Franz Liszt’s, hung seedily to his shoulders. “Che t’è successo?” he said. To which Cass replied: “No gas, my friend.” The face smiled. “Hang onto the back,” he said. “You look cold. Open the tappo and have some wine, but be careful not to spill it. Hang onto the back and I’ll take you where you’re going.”

  Which was the most curious part of all. For the face in the truck could not have known where Cass was going, any more than Cass did himself. And a long time afterward, thinking th
at without that offer he doubtless would never have landed where he did, he wondered if that face had really been as queer and sinister as he remembered it. Yet as Cass hung himself with one hand to the rear of the truck and allowed himself to be pulled behind, he felt the road rise beneath him, and now through pouring rain he felt himself being towed higher and higher along the margin of some wild and yawning gorge, where foaming torrents rushed a thousand feet below, and the sea fell away in the distance like gray water in a dishpan, steaming and indistinct. Directly in front of his muzzle the bung of one barrel was riven through by a wooden cock, and with his free hand he gave it a twist, so that the wine spurted red and bubbly into his out-thrust lower jaw. Higher and higher the truck climbed, towing its drinker. When they reached the peak level ground, Cass had gulped a pint without wasting a drop, and now as the truck halted in a strange rainy piazza, before he could thank the weird face in the cab, he had fallen from the motorscooter in a soggy, deplorable heap, a red and white banner floating insanely across his vision:





  The truck was gone. Merciful God, he thought, heaving slowly to his feet, I’m in a bleeding infantile neurotic cycle. He climbed dreamily back onto the motorscooter, tried to start it, remembered his lack of fuel, and was about to push it toward shelter, when at this moment Saverio came splashing across the square, stuttering, snaggled mouth ajar, nearly toppling him again as he took possession of the knapsack riding aft. “Bella Vista!” he roared. “Tutti i conforti … panorama scenico … prezzi moderati!” Through the downpour the creature gazed at him imploringly, with wild dislocated eyes. Cass shivered. I have gone to sleep, he thought, I’ve gone to sleep and am dreaming of hell. He sneezed, swaying groggily, aware that the day was verging on darkness and oblivion. “Dica,” he said to the idiot, “where can I get a drink?”

  “At the Bella Vista!”

  There was no one in the lobby of the Bella Vista. It was grim, cold, deserted, and silent save for a hideous rococo clock whose pendulum snapped back and forth slowly and dolefully in the stillness. There were potted rubber plants, an umbrella stand, and a massive walnut armchair whose mirrored back reflected the oval specter of himself, pale-faced and dripping. It was like the waiting room of a funeral parlor, and the adjoining salone revealed even grimmer secrets: plush chairs bedecked in graying antimacassars, a chandelier once meant to cast a glory of light, in which one bulb glimmered dimly, more rubber plants in pots, and a wide view of the sunless valley with its churning rack of clouds and mist. Then in the gloom his eyes picked out a fireplace and a grate filled with feebly glowing coals. Drawn up close beside it an aging couple in sweaters and lumpy tweeds were playing backgammon with broken, haunted expressions and with chilblained, visibly trembling hands. They seemed to be the hotel’s only guests. Somewhere out of sight a canary chirped submissively. The place smelled of wet wool, old books, fish, and Great Britain. Staggering through the hallways, he located the bar. Almost as an afterthought, it was cramped into a tiny, dim, airless anteroom, and there could not have been a gloomier place to drink in all of Europe. By hammering at a bell long enough, he finally summoned an oppressed-looking waiter, who sold him a bottle of caramel-tasting Italian brandy. He took this back into the salone and sat down, trying to dry out, but without hope, since the air of the hotel seemed damper even than his clothes. He picked up a copy of the London Daily Mail, put it down again—it was six months old. The brandy, foul as it was, warmed him, allaying some of his nervousness and depression. After some minutes he actually felt a kind of deceptive, dull-witted sense of well-being, and told himself that he was not drunk, after all. He looked at the backgammon players, and sneezed again.

  He must have sat there for half an hour, brooding, gazing out at the tragic landscape. It conjured up all scenes which in his imagination existed as places to be shunned: Blackpool; Winnipeg; Finland; Shamokin, P.A. The land was darkling and accursed. He tilted the bottle up and drank. In the shadows by the fire the Englishman and his wife massaged their fingers. All of a sudden, try as he might to repress it, a pressure which had been building up all day tore loose, and he broke wind loudly, a prolonged tattoo which he squirmed vainly to muffle, finally relaxed sheepishly and let go—a slow, erratic crepitation, like marbles falling into a hopper. There was a commotion at the backgammon table. He barely noticed it. His disturbance ceased. He brooded some more. Then, after a while, rising unsteadily from the chair, only halfaware that he had begun to fret out loud, and to mumble, he took an infirm step forward, wondering if now was not the time to go back to Rome, and in spite of the rain. “You can take Sambuco and bugger it!” he said aloud. “Bugger it!” He hardly knew he spoke: the Englishwoman, followed more slowly by her husband, snapped erect at the table like a startled doe. He lurched toward the mantelpiece, in the hope of eliciting some warmth for his pants from the meager coals. Suddenly he was trapped, cornered, utterly hemmed in by Sambuco: he felt like one of those gallant cowboys who, pinned to the edge of an abyss by Indians, must turn around to face a storm of arrows or plunge horse and all into the horrendous gully. There was nowhere, he thought with mounting terror, nowhere at all to go. His affliction returned. Windy, turbulent, he edged past the slowly rising, cherry-red, bristling old man and in complete despair fell heavily against the mantel, feeling, as he did, something give way ponderously at his shoulder and fall to earth with an ear-splitting crash.

  Slotkin, he thought, old father, old rabbi. Patience, discipline—that’s what I need, and he was still thinking this in dim self-congratulation at his insight, when hell broke loose around him. For the huge vase, in falling—it could not have weighed less than fifty pounds—had narrowly missed the old man; even now as Cass looked dully down at it lying splintered in green shards on the floor he saw two wool-lined slippers shuffle forward, heard a voice quaking and elderly and half-hysteric with rage. “Drunken foul-mouth! Blightah!” the old man quavered, brandishing an invisible riding crop, and Cass, looking up in pity and wonder at the inflamed, mustachioed face, was for the first time aware of what he had done.

  “Scuse me—” he began, but it was too late, for the salone, awakened by the sound of the crash, came alive like a mausoleum overrun by vandals. Three waiters appeared, and several maids; what looked like a cook came on the run, chef’s hat flopping, and a horde of lesser minions—busboys, gardeners, porters. As they surrounded him, and as the old man, still fuming, shook a chapped fist in his face, he could only think that with all this help around, the place surely must be losing money.

  “Look here! Ruddy side of the man!” the Englishman was bawling to the assemblage. “Look at him! Who is he, filthy drunken beggar! Nearly brained us, he did, with that vahs!” Dumbly he watched the old man, watched his wife now plucking at his sleeve, watched the parlor as it filled up with spectators, and said to himself over and over, metronomically: This is not happening, this is not happening to me. Then just as his longing to melt through the floor became so intense that he did, for an instant, seem to feel his feet sink beneath him, a wild-eyed little man came on the scene, gesticulating with a menu he held in one plump hand. This, he made out, was someone named Signor Windgasser, a small human, wholly terrifying. Sputtering apologies to the old Englishman, he turned to face Cass and began to flourish the menu beneath his eyes. “You!” he cried. “That vase was worth two hundred thousand lire!” Cass was too dazed, too confused, too inextricably lost to stir; in a blur of muffled sight and sound like the wildest hallucination he watched Windgasser’s lips moving in convulsive outrage, yet could make no sense of what was being said; hand cocked upon his spectral swagger stick, the old man still fumed and fussed; from somewhere in the crowd there was a hoarse croak of uneasy laughter. A frieze of dingy damask curtains swam like water upon his vision; uptilted, the distant valley seemed to slope like a ski chute wrapped in mist toward the unbelievable sea. Nauseated now, we
akly heaving, he tried to reply, tried to discover some meaning in this preposterous inquisitorial dream; just then, just as he made his benumbed lips function and, trying out a mouthful of thick strange-sounding words of apology, staggered toward Windgasser with placating hands uplifted, he felt an unyielding rod or bar or fireplace fender clutch his ankle, tripping him, and the parqueted flooring of the Bella Vista rose up to meet him full and shocking in the face, like a slammed door. He lay there, aching, watching ten thousand minute blossoms of fire. Then he felt himself being hoisted by strong hands, by brawny white-sleeved arms that propelled him forward across the room and into the lobby, where someone muttering Italian oaths rammed his knapsack down around his neck and by the seat of his pants hurled him forward again, half-suspended in air, feet paddling like a comic bicyclist’s, out of doors and into the rain. “Cacciatelo via!” he heard someone shout, and the jeering word “Ubriacone!” A door slammed, and the muffled words came back—“And stay out!” And he was alone once more in the rain.


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