Set this house on fire, p.44
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       Set This House on Fire, p.44

           William Styron

  “I don’t know,” she began to moan. “I don’t know, Cass. Oh jeepers, I’m so sorry—”

  “It’s too late to be sorry!” he roared. “You know that compensation check of mine? The one I get for being a nut? It won’t even keep us in catchup! How do you like that! What are we going to do now, go to the poorhouse? Beg? Borrow? Steal? What! Do you realize where you are now, Miss Deadhead? Four thousand miles from old New Castle, without a pot to pee in! How do you like that? Oh, Poppy, how could you be so careless?”

  “Well, you said it yourself,” she began to reason. “I heard you say it yourself! How you thought the capitalist system was corrupt and dishonest, and investments and all were a terrible delusion.”

  “Christ!” he said. “Shut your yap! You’re a living, breathing, walking prefrontal lobotomy! This is a perfect lesson in capitalism! One dumb move and you’re broke! You know what’s going to happen to you, you idiot—you’re going to be swabbing floors for fifty lire a day, that’s what! And the kids! They’ll be living off grasshoppers!” (Jesus, he thought, maybe I’ll have to go to work.)

  “Oh, Cass!” she cried, wilting beneath his assault.

  “What have we got?” he demanded. “What! I can sell the motorscooter, but how much spaghetti will that buy us? We’ve got to go to Sambuco now anyway, see? The place is already paid for, two solid months. But what in God’s name are we going to live on? Answer me that!” Desperation ran through him like ice water. “My God, Poppy, what you’ve done!” And his eyes rested for an instant on her hand. “Your engagement ring!” he said, snaking out his arm. “That diamond should fetch a hundred thousand lire, it cost me three hundred and fifty bucks when I bought it. Here, lemme have it.”

  “Go take a shit in your bleeding hat, you filthy misbegotten prick!”

  “POPPY!” He stood nearly paralyzed, rigid with shock and horror. Then in a small voice he said: “Poppy, where did you learn those words?”

  She had begun to bawl, mouth wide-open, and the baby propped in a chair beside her began to howl, too, at the top of its voice.

  “Where did you learn them?”

  “Where do you think I learned them, you dumb bunny,” she sobbed. “Where do you think I learned them?”

  For a moment he was utterly crushed. He tried to touch her shoulder, trying to get close to the mystery of her decency and her sweetness and her innocence, but she shrugged him away. He left the room.

  The next day he sold the motorscooter, and what he got from this, together with his compensation check, would be enough to last for a month or so. And they were going south again. Everything was fine, everything was adventurous. Poppy said: “Oh, Cass, it’s going to be dreamy!” But as they rode southward on a bus through the greening spring fields of Campania, he felt a foreboding, and he could not erase the vision from his mind: of elegant passengers in Cadillacs on that blackguard of a bridge across the Delaware, all of them gazing aloofly down, and the OK Motel and the Winnie Winkle Burger Bar & Drive-In, stucco ruin below, mossy and crumbling in a rubble of shattered neon and toppling television antennae and corrupt encroaching weeds. But in Sambuco, of course, new worlds did not open for him. He thought he would be able to paint. Windgasser loaned him (rented him, rather, for two thousand of his diminishing lire) an easel, left years ago in the hotel basement by a ninth-rate Edwardian painter named Angelucci whose barbarous encrustations, like the work of some crazed Burne-Jones given the muscles but not the mind of Michelangelo, still covered every wall and ceiling of the palace. On this easel Cass placed some canvas, and the canvas remained bare. Restless, he began once again to drink too much. He went without eating. He felt presentiments of the same anxiety which had afflicted him in Paris. Hung-over, each morning he sought out Luigi, who idled away his off-duty hours, cool and philosophical, over a single Campari and soda at the cafe in the square. Luigi was fond of what he called, somewhat heavily, dialettica; their conversation was usually an argument, conducted however on amiable terms.

  “A Fascist you say,” Cass would prod him. “Now how could this be? Here you are a man of culture and wit and reading and yet you’re a Fascist. How can this be, Luigi? How can you be a Fascist and call yourself a humanist at the same time?”

  “It is easy,” said Luigi, picking his teeth. “What your trouble is, friend Cass, is that like most northern people you are too willing to pin labels on people. Or put it this way: you believe that a label fully identifies a man, either black or white, with no room for chiaroscuro. Thus your so-called liberals will grant the possibility of an Italian embracing Communism, which is a monstrous ideology, but will call an Italian Fascist worse than a dog. While with your anti-liberals the sentiments will be precisely the other way around. All it shows is that none of you Americans knows anything about Italians. We are not Germans, after all, or Soviets either. I think it is this dogmatic tendency that has made you people so lacking in the field of the arts, not to speak of diplomacy.” He sat back and made his humorless grin.

  “Go ahead,” said Cass, somewhat grimly, “you haven’t answered my question.”

  “All right, I’ll tell you how I can be what I am. For one thing, I am not a spiritual Fascist. No Italian is a spiritual anything in politics. He lives too much for the moment to be idealistic about what is going to govern him. With one or two gaps it has always been a tyranny in one form or another and he has gotten so that he doesn’t care. As for myself, I am an opportunist. A wellmeaning opportunist. That is why for the moment I am a Fascist. Let me explain: Presume first that I am a humanist—this is so. All decent people are humanists, basically, even decent policemen. Presume then that I must get a job, to feed myself and to help support my mother and father and my sisters who live in Salerno. Presume further that the only job open to me—because of my superior intelligence—is that of a policeman. Please, Cass, don’t smile, this is true. I must become a policeman or work on the roads or have no job at all; so I choose to become a policeman. It is not much but it is something, and I am lucky to get the job. Now for a minute, reflect. Could I be a policeman in Italy and be a Communist at the same time? What a preposterous thought. Even if it were possible, my revered superior, Parrinello”—and here he made a look of disgust—“is a Fascist sub rosa, and if I were a Communist what kind of life would I lead—”

  “What a cowardly way—”

  “Please, Cass, no insults. Let me explain. It is not just that. In my extreme youth, as I’ve told you, I was a Communist. But that was a mistake. I was stupid then and had not learned much. Gradually I came to discover, after much pondering, that it was a betrayal of the soul for any man to embrace Communism, which is anti-human, barbaric, and a monstrous despotism—in short, a repudiation of all that is fine and noble in over two thousand years of Western culture—”

  “So when you joined the cops you junked all that and became a Fascist. You forgot all about that camp in Poland where they melted down millions of little Jewish babies for butter and saddle soap, or that cave up near Rome where they took several hundred of your innocent countrymen and mowed them down with machine guns in one fearful senseless slaughter. You forgot how twenty years of Fascism turned Italy into a desert, a wasteland. And don’t tell me anything about Mussolini’s fine roads. You forget—Ah, Luigi, what a short memory you have!”

  “Please, Cass,” he remonstrated with a sour look. “Don’t get hysterical. We are not Germans. You’re really trying me to the limit now. Are you going to listen—”

  “Go ahead.” Go ahead, you ignorant bastard.

  “So even in order to eat, to hold myself together—not to speak of my family in Salerno—I could not remain a Communist, practically or morally. Then what ways were open to me?” he asked rhetorically.

  “I should think you might have tried the way of the Christian-Democrats, or of the Socialists. Or of anything, Luigi, for the love of God, besides this gruesome—”

  “Patience, my friend.” And he laughed, dryly and briefly. “Could an honest man be a C
hristian-Democrat, I ask you? As the great German philosopher Nietzsche” (great names, with Luigi, were always explicated: the famous Frenchman Descartes, the illustrious painter Bellini) “pointed out, it is such corrupt and selfsatisfied dregs of society that threaten a nation with its greatest harm. Could an honest man embrace the party of the clerics and the fat bourgeoisie and all those who would kowtow to that orribile foreign minister of yours”—he pronounced it, somewhat Gallically, Dew-lays—“who wishes only to turn Italy into an image of the American Protestant church? Being so poor, we are willing to accept a decent charity; but no charity can come from this man, only pious words, and graft for the rich men who make typewriters in Torino. Could an honest person respect whoever respects him? I ask you, Cass. As for the Socialists, they are soft and soggy and offer only daydreams.”

  “You could have remained nothing, Luigi, you know. What I think is known as an independent—”

  Again Luigi flashed his annoying grin. “An Italian has to be something, Cass.”

  “He has to have a label,” Cass said, thinking he had scored a point.

  “So he has to have a label—yes, but the important thing is he does not have to be what the label says he is. That is where we differ from everyone else. As for my forgetting, as you put it just now, let me ask you how many Jews were put to death by the Italian Fascisti. Your expression tells me that you are aware of the fact that the sins of Germany are not the sins of Italy.” He paused and gave Cass an amicable pat on the wrist. “Let me tell you something. Italians are the most expedient people on earth. What could be a sin has turned out to be a very great virtue.”

  “We do not call it expediency. We call it hypocrisy, and it’s not a virtue.”

  “Call it what you may. We Italians are too poor and we’ve been through too much to make a virtue of perfect honesty. Instead we believe that just a measure of honesty spread out thin enough is generally more valuable than the terrible weight of your Anglo-Saxon self-righteousness. As for myself, I can be a Fascist with no sense of compromise. It’s the safest measure. I’ve got to look out for my own skin. And I bide my time, hoping for nothing but keeping my eyes open. Who knows but whether some day I might not be able to do somebody a little bit of good?”

  To this sort of argument Cass had no reply. He would sit sullenly, drinking, and by and by the talk would turn to other things, Luigi carrying the ball: What is matter? What is reason? What is reality? Had Cass ever read the esteemed Spanish-Dutch philosopher Spinoza? Cass would say yes or no, depending upon his mood, but at this point the wine would usually have laid waste to his powers of concentration, his head would sag down upon the table, he would be too drunk to care…

  “You drink too much, Cass,” he would hear Luigi’s voice, along with a tsk-tsk-tsk, “it will bring you to disaster, mark my words.”

  “You talk too much, Luigi,” his own voice would say as, in the bright morning light, he fell sound asleep.

  But there were times during that spring when he was at least partly sober. Forsaking his usual headpiece, the jaunty beret which had grown gamy with the advent of hot weather, he put on a straw hat, sandals, and baggy blue pants and thus accoutered like Paul Gauguin went for long walks back into the hills. In this way he found Tramonti, which was a vale, or glade, or dale—at any rate, something poetic—so far removed from this century that if ever, from where he sat in the cool shadows of a willow tree, a faun had reared his head to give a goatish laugh or a shepherdess with a crook appeared to cajole him in the language of Virgil, he would have only been half-surprised. There was a brook here, spongy-smelling and cool with water iris and fern. Peasant huts were scattered through the valley, and a few stray sheep. Stretched out on the mossy bank, reading a book, or just lying there gazing aslant at the motionless blue sky, he would hear sounds—sheep softly bleating or the tinkle of a cowbell or the far-off cheering of birds. A breeze would come up from the sea, bearing with it an odor of cedar and pine, and like fat snowflakes a flurry of dandelion seeds would swoop and dance, pirouetting, and drift to earth. The scent of cedar and pine would linger, and he would nod off to sleep, all terrors dissolved in the alloy of memory and desire and his heart wrung, even at the borderland of darkness, with foreshadowings of repose. Yet even then all was not well: presently phantoms would distort his dreams, small violent outrages of the most grotesque and fanciful recollection, and he would awake with a start in his bucolic glade, sweating, thinking of nymphs and shepherds, but aware above all that he had heard—indistinct and remote but real enough—muffled sounds of toil and tribulation that were worse than grief. Once, awakened in this fashion, he scrambled to the top of a knoll just above him, and saw what it was that had rattled his dreams. Three women in rags, ageless, their skin stained the color of walnut, labored up the side of the mountain toward Sambuco, carrying on their backs loads of brush and fagots which would have burdened down a strong man or a small mule. Indeed, there was something mulelike about the women. What it was he could not exactly define, except that here, at a point where the path took a steep and brutal lurch upward, the going was so rough that none of them could suppress sounds of the most purified and bone-bare anguish, anguish rent not from the soul—for these crooked shapeless things could possess no souls—but from tormented gristle and flesh, as if from animals. And he watched wide-eyed and in confused misery himself as the three creatures, ragged brown bags, gained the crest, stood there for an instant with the fagots balanced mountainously and perilously above them, then clumped away as under a cloud, one brownly diminishing, dustily merging image of stooped and downcast bondage.

  The sight distressed and saddened him—so much so that, guiltily, he found another spot in the valley to read and dream, far away from the women and their groans of torment and their crushing loads. He could not forget them, though. Try as he might to put them out of his mind—even on the bank of his new brook, amid new pastures—he could not escape the feeling that each day the valley had fresh shadows, as if sullen shapes prowled around in Arcady.

  Then sometime after this, early in May, the real anxiety returned, heavily, inescapably. One night, with an obscure urge to get supremely drunk upon him, he bought five bottles of red Sambuco wine and, enthroning himself by the phonograph in the living room, alone, with Poppy and the children safe in bed below, he proceeded to get merrily potted. Only, after long hours fortified by Leadbelly and by seedy visions of grandeur, it was not so merry. At three o’clock, perceiving all earthly beauty in the way the lamplight fell in a coppery pool across his own hands, he was Van Dyck (living in luxury, too, and keeping several mistresses); at four, with such majestic concepts of color and form afloat in his mind that he hardly knew where to start, he was revolutionary, legendary, without a peer; at four-thirty he was swapping theories with Rembrandt in heaven; at five, when dawn came up ablaze across the sea and he seized a brush and took an abortive swipe at the canvas, his ballooning rapture split, burst, and collapsed in a heap, and he began to stalk the room like one dungeonbound. His nerve-ends were frayed, a dull and unnameable panic had come over him, and Leadbelly had sung “Poor Howard” close to a hundred times. Sleep was beyond all possibility. Grabbing his last bottle of wine, he left the house and walked through the cool and sleeping dawn toward Tramonti. There in his glade he sat down with the bottle propped between his knees, and there he sipped and nipped until the insects began to fidget and stir and the birds began to sing and until dim chiming notes from the town told him that it was ten o’clock. The only thing he remembered thinking, as he sat there crouched embryonically by the clear stream, was that God surely had clever ways of tormenting a man, putting in his way a substance whereby He might briefly be reached, but which in the end, forever and always, sent Him packing over the horizon trailing clouds of terror. At last he staggered to his feet, hurling the empty bottle into the weeds. He was making his way back toward town, stiff-legged and with glazed eyes, somewhat like a zombie, when like apparitions straight out of the realm of everlas
ting fire three women fantastically burdened—were they the same ones, always the same ones? he did not know —trooped up over a crest in the path before him, stood there motionless for an instant, dumb. Then, descending, gaining momentum, spines at right angles to their spindly legs, they shuffled toward him and past him, uttering no sound at all—“Good morning, ladies,” he heard himself murmur idiotically—and were gone. He stood there for a moment, gazing at the place where they had vanished, beyond a hillock and into the lovely valley. And he wandered back toward town, with an oppressive sorrow in his flesh and bones.

  Then as he approached the gate of the town he saw a sight which in his shredded and jangled condition demoralized him even further and which, together with the women, had the power to lay a troublesome spell over him from that moment forward. A quiet crowd had gathered outside the gate. A blue Pullman bus with its motor still chugging had halted too, and nearby the crowd was milling in a rough circle, all heads bent down upon an object lying in the road. It was a dog, Cass saw as he approached, and something—the bus?—had run over him with such weight and impact that his entire lower parts from belly to tail had been mashed flat against the asphalt pavement. Yet, wondrously and horribly, the dog still lived. He still lived, and his jaws were wideopen in a snarl of pain, but he made no sound. His upper parts—head, chest, and legs—possessed power and life, and Cass saw now that the crowd was intent upon seeing whether the beast, piteously straining and scratching with his forelegs against the pavement, would be able to lift himself up from the earth. It was impossible, of course, for the dog already was dying, but the crowd watched his struggles sadly and with teeth bared in fascination, and Cass watched in fascination too as the wild-eyed creature scrabbled against the pavement and through a blood-flecked mouth tried voicelessly to utter its agony. “Ah Dio!” someone said. “Put him out of his misery!”

  But still no one stirred. It was as if they were watching a struggle that held them revolted and horrified but which, because of some obscure meaning there in which they themselves were profoundly implicated, they were powerless to alter or resolve. “Buon Dio!” the same voice said again. “Somebody finish the poor animal!” But again no one made a move toward the dog. In foaming, sparkle-eyed anguish he still jerked and twisted and floundered with his forelegs against the road, and with fangs bared barked into the air soundless torture. Then at last somebody stepped forward—a portly man in a business suit with a thick gold watch chain strung across his paunch. He was holding a stick in one hand, and Cass, hearing someone mention the word “medico,” recognized him as a man he had once seen briefly in the piazza.—Caltroni, the local physician. He wore a pince-nez and his bald head shone like glass. The doctor took a step toward the dog and with a hand glittering with rings raised the stick high in the air; when it descended, badly aimed, it struck the animal not across the skull but along the snout and muzzle, knocking the beast’s head to the road and bringing forth from his nostrils a gush of scarlet blood. The crowd gasped. The dog once more raised his bloody head and commenced to struggle. Again, sweating now, Caltroni lifted the stick on high—“Some doctor, eh?” Cass heard a voice snigger, inevitably—and brought it down hard upon the dog’s head, where it made a single explosive, excruciating crack and broke into two ragged pieces. The crowd gasped again, this time on a wild, unified note of pain. “Datemi un bastone!” the doctor cried out in despair, calling for a proper club, but Cass with his mind and guts in turmoil waited to see no more. He fled in sudden cowardly haste, for no reason at all—it was only a dog—furious and cursing. The last glimpse he had of the scene as he stumbled off toward home was the dog’s head, mutilated, bleeding, still mouthing its silent, stunned agony to the heavens. And the doctor, bent on euthanasia, shouting for a stick.


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