Set this house on fire, p.42
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       Set This House on Fire, p.42

           William Styron

  Then—perhaps it was the intolerable rain again, or the swelling beneath his eye, or the insulting “Ubriacone,” with its false imputation that he had drunk too much—something popped like a valve inside him; he took a deep breath, shot his soggy cuffs, and charged back into the hotel like a tormented bear. A grave error. The marble steps, slick from the downpour, were like glass beneath his feet. He was only halfway up to the entrance when like a doormat the earth was whisked away from beneath him. Still roaring, he saw the hotel’s façade spin madly sideways, and at the door one solitary waiter, pop-eyed in dismay, reaching out vainly to arrest his fall. Then he felt his skull crash down upon the edge of a step, and he was sped into oblivion upon great baroque chords of organ music, obliterating shock and pain… .

  When he awoke, with an ache in his head but curiously in command of his senses, he smelled an institutional smell of wine and grime, and knew almost at once that he was in a police station. He was lying on a cot, and he heard his own groan as he struggled back to consciousness; though it was a little death to do so, he rose to a sitting position on the cot, gingerly touched his cranium, and felt a lump the size of a small doorknob, fiercely painful to touch. And as he raised his eyes he saw two policemen. One, an immensely obese, bespectacled sergeant, scowled at him from behind a desk. The other, standing, was a young corporal with a mustache, who seemed to regard Cass less with suspicion or hostility than with a kind of bemused speculation, though even this was hard to be sure about, for much of his face was obscured as he spread his jaws wide and with a large hand began industriously to pick his teeth. No one spoke. Cass watched dully as a be-whiskered rat peered out from a hole in the wall behind the sergeant’s desk, sniffed the atmosphere and, like some cafe trifler idly emerging at midafternoon, serenely waddled away out the door and into another room. Rain drummed steadily on the roof overhead. Still drunk, his pain numbed, Cass heard a thin brainless giggle at work in his throat.

  “Molto comico?” said the fat sergeant, with ponderous irony, “molto divertente? Well, we’ll see just how funny it is.” He spread out a sheaf of papers on the desk before him. “Get to your feet and come over here.”

  Cass rose and moved unsteadily to the desk, where by stretching his neck he was able to look down and make out the list of charges, all the while attending to the sergeant’s high-pitched epicene voice: “You are first charged with willful and malicious destruction of property. Secondariamente, with the use of obscene language in a public place. In terzo luogo, with disorderly conduct in a public place. In quarto luogo, with attempted assault upon a person, by name Signor the Vice-Admiral Sir Edgar A. Hatcher, Southsea, Hampshire, Gran Bretagna. In quinto luogo, with drunkenness in a public place. How do you call yourself? Passport, please.”

  “Come?” Cass said.

  “Your passport!” the sergeant commanded.

  “It’s with my motorscooter, in the piazza,” Cass mumbled, forcing back demented hilarity.

  The sergeant made an exasperated motion with his pudgy hands, turned to the corporal: “Go get the motorscooter. Get the motorscooter and the passport.”

  The corporal, disheartened, rolled his eyes toward the roof and the rain, torrential now, a cloudburst.

  “All right, wait until the rain stops,” the sergeant said, and then to Cass: “Nazionalità? Inglese?”


  “How do you call yourself?” the policeman went on, brusque, provincial, pen poised above a ledger.

  “Domenico Scarlatti.” The name, like a flute-sound, like an incantation, had appeared at the forefront of his mind for no reason at all; now it had simply escaped his lips, spoken with gravity, dignity, self-possession. The sergeant looked up at Cass, scrutinizing him with ignorant small eyes.

  “Then you are an Italo-American,” he piped, with bitter censure in his voice. He drew back in the chair for an instant, folding his hands over his elephantine paunch. “It is the case with such people as you. It is your stock of people which has gone to America and made a fortune, only to come back to the land of your ancestry and flaunt your money and your uncouth ways. It is a great pity that we do not have Mussolini now. The Duce would enforce laws against the likes of you. Well, let me tell you something, Scarlatti. Here in Sambuco we will not tolerate your type of behavior, do you understand?” Again he leaned over the ledger. “Where were you born, and when?”

  Oh, my heart, Cass thought, improvising: “June 6, 1925. But tell me, Sergeant, how is it that I am accused of assault? That vase. I meant no harm—”

  “Answer the questions,” the sergeant snapped. “Birthplace?”

  “Put down Tuxedo Park. Then, comma, New York,” he persevered. With fingers delicately outstretched, he steadied himself against the desk.

  “Tuxedo Park, New York. Spelling?”

  “T-u-s-s-e-d-o. Like the capital of Japan.”

  “Curious. Father?”

  “Alessandro Scarlatti. Deceased now.”

  “Mother?” The sergeant scribbled laboriously.

  “Gypsy Rose Scarlatti. Defunta,” he added. “Also deceased.” All of a sudden—orphan that he was and had been—he felt close to tears.

  The sergeant leaned back again and, with an air of sagacity, of magnitude, began to lecture him again: “You are in very serious trouble, my friend. We do not like to arrest Americans. Not because we have any qualms about it, see? But only because you now are strong and we are weak, and your country brings—how would you say it?—pressure to bear. When the principles of the Duce are restored”—and here the dimmest facsimile of a smile appeared on his porcine face—“all that might change. But at the present we do not relish arresting Americans.” He paused and looked down, drumming with his fingers on the desk. “But we cannot tolerate your kind of behavior. And we will arrest you! It is emigrants like you, bearing an Italian name, who give Italy a bad smell all over the world. The Duce himself pointed out,” he went on with an erudite gleam, “the Duce himself pointed out in a speech at Ancona in July, 1931, that democracies must fall out of the weight of the corruption and license they allow their citizens, citizens I suspect like you—” He doubtless would have gone on, except for the uproar which rose at that moment from the single adjoining room. There was a man’s large, rough, argumentative voice, then another voice, then another voice—a girl’s—vituperative, high-pitched, and filled with angry scorn. Something seemed to strike heavily against a wall. The girl shrieked, the man began to shout. And the sergeant got up heavily, wheezing, and lumbered back into the other room. “Zitti!” Cass heard the sergeant squeal, and the hubbub subsided, save for the sound of distant heavy breathing, and the sergeant’s castrato voice, now in command of all. Cass turned then and saw that the corporal was still gazing at him, speculative, not unfriendly, attentive.

  “What will I get?” Cass said with a groan, apprehensive now.

  The corporal removed a fingernail from between his teeth. “Straordinario,” he mused, ignoring the question, “assolutamente straordinario.”


  “The vacuum of the man. Born and brought up in Naples, home of the Scarlatti. And he has heard of neither one of them. What is your real name?”

  Cass told him, feeling somewhat more sober now, but the ache in his head burgeoning and blossoming and, along with it, pangs of anxiety creeping up secretly, darkly inside his breast. For an instant he had the crazy impulse to make a break out the door. Then he forced himself to remain calm and asked the corporal for a glass of water.

  “What will I get?” he said again, as the corporal ran water into a glass.

  “Here, drink it down. It will be good for you,” said the corporal. “You speak excellent Italian. I suppose it is the fact that you are an American that makes you so naïve in such matters.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Sergeant Parrinello, that is what I mean. When a police officer is intent on making an arrest he simply locks the culprit up. And that’s the end of it. When on the other han
d he is persuaded that he might in some small way profit by the desperation of the accused to be released, he gives long dissertations on this and that. The Duce. Ancona. 1931. Democracies. Corruption and license. Do you not see the method in this procedure? It is merely to allow time. To allow time for the accused to make an appropriate mental calculation—that is to say, whether he should perhaps give up the price of an enormous meal in a de-luxe hotel or whether, under the circumstances of his own malfeasance, an even more handsome sacrifice might not be in order—that new gown for one’s wife, perhaps, or—”

  “I’m not going to bribe that pile of blubber!” Cass protested, too loudly, in the spirit—suddenly resurgent when it came to money—of Calvin, Wesley, and Knox.

  “Sssh-h,” the corporal warned him. His face was quite solemn. “Take it from me, Luigi, this Parrinello can make it hard. He does have a charge against you; you might squat in jail in Salerno for a whole month, awaiting trial. Our procedure for obtaining bond is different from that in America. And Parrinello is basically a cheap fellow.” He moved toward the door, fingering his mustache, and, lowering his voice, said: “In your situation I should think ten thousand lire might be right, so long as you also pay for that broken vase. But don’t be obvious, stick it in his ledger there. I have seen nothing.”

  “But why are you doing this for me?” Cass wondered aloud. “I mean—” But the corporal—enigmatic, exuding conviction, creep-ily benign—had vanished into the other room. What a monstrous swindle, he thought, ten thousand lire. A week’s pay for the fat bastard. It nearly cleaned him out, and this fact in truth sickened him far more than the hubris of the matter, overshadowing even his loathing of the huge wet bladder of a sergeant who had committed the extortion. Head throbbing, gut aching, feeling nearly as low as any low day he had had in Paris, he extracted the bill—his last of that size—from his wallet, and breathed it farewell as he tucked it into the sergeant’s ledger so that it coyly divulged itself, like a pink inner patch of thigh.

  The sergeant returned with heavy footfall. “Now then,” he began sternly as he sat down behind the desk, “now then, I wish to say again that you are in a very serious predicament.” He reached for the ledger; as he did so, Cass saw his eyes light upon the banknote. “A serious predicament,” he went on without changing expression, and with such an artful modulation of tone that it was almost breath-taking, “which however you might be able to find your way out of.” He looked up at Cass, at the same time clapping the ledger shut. “You have made a serious mistake here in Sam-buco. We will not tolerate your kind of misbehavior. At the same time,” he said in a tempered, expressive larghetto, “at the same time, you do look like a decent sort, Scarlatti. I’d even be willing to say that this is your first encounter with the police. Am I right?”

  “Right as rain, Chief,” Cass said, lapsing briefly into English, now again wildly outraged.

  “Then I tell you what I am going to do. With the exception that you must pay for the broken vase at the Bella Vista, I am going to liberate you from these charges. I suggest that you watch your step in the future. You are free to go. You owe this office one hundred and fifty lire for the carta bollata.”

  “For the carta bollata?”

  “For the revenue stamp on the charge, for the official—”

  “I know what it is, for the love of Christ,” Cass said, voice rising, “but do you mean to stand there, you despicable lump, and tell me—”

  Later Cass recollected that at that instant he might easily have undone everything, but the sergeant had not heard his words or, if he had, chose to ignore them, for right then the noise and the shouting outside recommenced. “Bugiardo!” a girl screamed. “Liar!” “Bitch!” a man howled. And almost at the same moment Luigi the corporal, sweating, cap lopsided, propelled before him into the room a sunken-cheeked unshaven man in a tradesman’s smock and, directly behind him, a peasant girl. The girl, who was eighteen or so, wore a shabby moth-eaten coat several sizes too large and darkened with rain at the shoulders. She was barefoot, and a faded scarf concealed her hair. Still shrieking her fury she came in, and for a desperate, sinking moment all Cass could think of was how extraordinarily beautiful she was. Like the draught of wind that makes a fire blaze up, her anger seemed only to excite and inflame the loveliness of her face; Cass noticed that it was only Luigi’s big hand, grasped firmly at the belt of the girl’s coat, that kept her from climbing like a wildcat straight up the tradesman’s back. “Liar!” she screeched. “Liar! Liar!” And the tradesman, who had some dusty inflammation of the skin which patched his cheeks like frostbite, came back with that antiphonal low-throated groan, like a sob of hurt and disbelief, which punctuates Italian Donnybrooks: “Ah-uu! Tu sei bugiarda! Puttana! Liar yourself, you bitch!”

  “Silence!” the sergeant commanded. “Maybe you’d better stand over here,” he suggested to the man. “And you” he said with a jerk of his head to the girl, “you stand on this side of the desk and keep your mouth shut.” Cass could almost hear an audible clink as the scales of justice, balancing sex upon one side, sank in the interest of commerce. The girl’s eyes flashed as she moved to where she was told to move, but she was close to tears. She bit the inside of her cheek, and her lips began to tremble, and as Cass stared at the soft-eyed oval of her face, smeared with rain and dirt, he wanted to clean her up, make her happy, and press upon her lips a full and passionate kiss. She was exquisite, and he gazed at her helplessly as he rubbed the knot on his head, aching to make sure that the rest of her body measured up to her legs, which were perfectly formed though like her face smeared with reddish dirt.

  “Let’s get this clear,” said Parrinello to the man. “You are claiming this girl stole something from your store.”

  “She attempted to,” the man said. “I caught her in the act.”

  “I did not steal!” the girl burst out. “I was outside and I had it in my hand, but I was going to pay!”

  “Another lie!” the man retorted. “What could you pay with?”

  “Silence!” the sergeant ordered. He eased down into the seat, quiet for a moment, mysterious, and the swivel chair with a sound of singing springs swung him ponderously and heavily far, far back, so that he lay nearly horizontal, hammocked in the bloat of his paltry and terrible authority. Then after a bit he said to the storekeeper: “Tell me. You have not told me. Just what is it that the girl stole from you?”

  “This,” the man said, “this.” He pulled out of his smock one of those gaily colored celluloid windmills, fastened to a fragile wand, which children run with or hang out of car windows. It was possibly worth the equivalent of a nickel or a dime. “I had it displayed outside upon the street,” the man began to explain rapidly, “when along came this peasant who snatched it up and ran away with it. Admit it!” he said with a snarl at the girl. “Why don’t you admit it!”

  Suddenly broken, the girl put her face between her hands and began to sob.

  Parrinello took the windmill. With an absurd and stagy air of nonchalance he blew upon it, puffed cheeks distended and with puckered pink lips, like some lewd Wind that blows from the corner of an antique map. “Tell me, slut,” he said to the girl at last, in his querulous eunuchal voice, “tell me something. I think I’ve seen you before, haven’t I? I can’t see now, but it seems that I remember that you have a nice big behind on you. A sweet behind. Now why does a grown girl like you with a sweet big behind want to steal a child’s toy like this? You should be down on the coast peddling that sweet nice behind to rich tourists.” It was, pure and unadorned, the voice of impotence, and Cass saw the sergeant’s face tinge pink as he crooned and sucked and smacked, getting his labial kicks. Luigi stirred nervously, now gazing with an air of stiff despondency out the window. “Why did you want to steal a thing like this?”

  “It was for my little brother,” the girl said in a muffled faint voice, helpless now, mortified, tears streaming out from beneath her dirty fingers.

  “Listen,” Parrinello went on.
You’re from Tramonti, are you not? You need money, I’ll bet. Let me give you some advice, carina. What you should do is save enough money to go to Positano, maybe Naples—maybe even Rome. Rome is a fine place. There you rent a room in a hotel and you pick up a rich man on the big street—hey, what is the name of that street, Corporal, where all the rich princes go?”

  “Via Veneto,” was the stiff remote answer, spoken so frostily that it could barely be heard. Heartbrokenly, miserably, the girl continued to weep.

  “And you go to a room, see, and you take that lovely sweet behind of yours and you spread it out on a set of nice pink sheets—”

  The wretched storekeeper had begun to make yucks of appreciative amusement. For an instant, shutting out from his mind the dreadful scene, Cass looked out the window, following Luigi’s gaze. His skull had begun to throb like some huge inflamed carbuncle, but now he saw that something strange had happened to the weather—a miracle. It was spring, and he could feel the warmth stealing into his bones. Dissolved like dew before the sun, the scud and rack of clouds had been washed clear of the valley. It was suddenly so bright, so vivid in the Mediterranean light, that he felt he could reach out and touch each detail; he saw a postcard in color of majestic peaks and a sky so shockingly blue that it looked like some madman’s overpainting and orange groves dropping in a ladder of terraced greenery toward the sea. Somewhere there was a dripping noise, last remnant of rain and winter. A flock of sheep was bleating, inebriate, on the far slope of the valley. And, Lord love me, he thought, there was even music: someone far off in the town had turned on a radio full blast, as if to celebrate this delinquent sunlight. It was not, to be sure, the carrousel which in his dreams had always foreshadowed this moment; it was Guy Lombardo, all glucose and giggles, but it struck some buried chord in him and as he glanced back at the girl, who had raised her begrimed, sorrowful, lovely face now, he felt like letting out some kind of a scream.

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