Set this house on fire, p.45
Set This House on Fire, p.45William Styron
That afternoon and night while he lay in feverish sleep it seemed to him, as he crouched deep in the womb of his slumber, that he kept waiting for the nightmare—volcanoes, gulf, perishing shore—to wash over him. But he dreamed instead of women with burdens, and dogs being beaten, and these somehow all seemed inextricably and mysteriously connected, and monstrously, intolerably so, so that when he awoke—full in the morning light of the following day—it was with an outcry of terror on his lips. He lay there for a while in the shadows, shuddering, hung-over, still impaled upon some cruel, swiftly dimming image of a thing being hurt and flayed. After a time he became aware of the world about him: he heard Windgasser’s gardeners jabbering outside the window, then, sniffing nearby an odor, foul and fishy-smelling, he turned and pushed off the pillow next to him a newspaper-wrapped package of sea food which Poppy or someone had mysteriously laid there.
He got up, shuddering. Dementia seemed to hover over the day like a mist. There was a displacement, a sense of reality unseated and uprooted all too reminiscent of that terrible day in Paris. He took a shower, which only chilled him. He got clumsily into his clothes and hurried toward the piazza as swiftly as his rubbery legs would take him, hoping against hope that enough wine might kill the fear to which he was shackled like a fellow prisoner.
“Ma la volgarità,” Luigi was saying as Cass ordered his rosso, “the vulgarity of our age is not confined to America, you see. It is a world phenomenon. Did you ever read the famous Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset?” He paused to stir with a hairy-knuckled finger the slivers of ice in his Campari. “No? It might cure you of your romantic naiveté about art and its corruption. Italy. It is the most vulgar country in the world. You must stop complaining, Cass. Nine hundred and ninety-nine people out of a thousand don’t care a dried fig for art, and they never will. Art is a silly accident, really. Why do you think millions of Italians migrated to America? To be free to enjoy art? No. Why then?”
“Una parola americana. It means money.” The wine came and Cass poured it with shaking hands.
“Precisely. Money. Perhaps you are beginning to see.” He paused. “You look ill, Cass. Do you think it would be wise if you did not indulge yourself in so much alcohol.”
Cass gulped wine: though red it was icy cold, Sambuco-style, and when it hit his stomach it was as if there had been turned on suddenly a jet of flame. “A-ii!” he gasped. His eyes blurred; the golden piazza, blue peaks beyond in the brilliant sunlight, all were engulfed in shimmering water. Then, “Sonofabitch,” he blurted in Anglo-Saxon, his stomach heaving. “I think Leopold has finally waked up. I won’t even be able to drink any more, Luigi.”
“Leopoldo?” said Luigi, with a puzzled look. “Ah, Leopoldo! The stomach you were telling me about.” His dark face wore a sudden sad-eyed, canine expression, full of honest concern. “Has it really come back, Cass?”
“I don’t know,” he replied in a flat voice. In apprehension he waited for another twinge in his gut, but the pain diminished, subsided. “I don’t know. It would have good reason to.”
“You’d better be careful,” said Luigi. “If you don’t take care of that ulcer” (he said ulcer a al duodeno, bringing forth a crumb of medical knowledge which sounded, with all those liquid syllables, doubly ominous) “you’ll hemorrhage some day and who will be able to get you to Salerno in time? Why don’t you stop drinking, Cass? Why do you Americans torture yourselves with so much drinking?”
“Simply, Luigi, for the same reason I gave you the other night.” Brightening now with the wine, after the sunken and imperiled first few waking hours, he felt a glow stealing over him; it was the old familiar reckless glow, banishing the hard core of trouble, and it was made somehow all the more pleasant by Luigi’s reproach. He glanced sideways to the square. Two skinny nuns, astoundingly black and beautiful, flapped past like ravens across the immense and cobbled sunlight, diminishing, by their vivacious fluttering patterns of jet on gold, some of his morning gloom. “Simply, Luigi,” he repeated, “because Americans are so wealthy. That’s why they drink. They have to drink because drinking drowns their guilt over having more money than anybody in the world. My God, Luigi, let them have some pleasure.”
Although he felt that he had said this without bitterness, he was aware that Luigi, morbid snooper, had caught the irony. Or perhaps it was because at this point, almost without thinking, he turned his pocket inside out. More grave than ever, the carabiniere bent toward him, saying, “What’s the matter, Cass? I thought you said there was money coming in the mails. I thought you said you weren’t going to have to worry.”
“We’re broke, Luigi. Dead broke. There’s no more money coming in the mails.”
“But Cass, that’s terrible! Didn’t you say—”
“No more money, Luigi. I think we are down to our last five thousand. We are slowly dissolving, the benighted Kinsolving.” This last he spoke in English. He gulped wine again.
“Does Poppy know?” the corporal asked, squinting now at him against the sun. “Is she aware of this financial—this difficoltà?”
“She knows, of course,” he said, “but she, as you well know, is even less able than I to grapple with the hard realities. Poppy! Luigi, I should have been born an Italian. Then I should feel no compunction whatever at seeing my wife in the role of a slave. A drab, a scullery wench. An inept one at that. As it is, I suffer. As it is, just an hour or so ago I woke up with my head throbbing as usual, completely unhinged and undone I am, still wrestling with my nightmares, and what do you think I find on the pillow beside me?”
“What?” said Luigi. His face wore a sober look of expectation (a nymph? a snake?).
“Two kilos of shrimp. Imagine the indelicacy. And the stench! Poppy left them there—why there I don’t know. She—I don’t know the phrase in Italian—she gathers wool. She dreams. In her abstraction she dropped everything, and the shrimp, done up in a page from Oggi with the big broad rear end laid out there of some movie blonde, you see, were propped up next to my chin. Oh Christ, Luigi, the place stank like a charnel house! Luigi, she can’t do anything without help. God knows, the places we lived in were horrible enough when there were just the two of us—candy wrappers, I remember, and cookie boxes all over everywhere—but with four kids! Anyway, I dragged myself out of bed and stepped into a diaper full of shit. I just howled there at the top of my voice for a while. Then after I took a cold shower I went upstairs. The confusion! The chaos! Timothy writing on the walls with my crayons. Felicia pouring milk on the cat. Nicky screaming in the corner with wet pants. And in the middle of it all, at a table with sunshine streaming down on her fair head—Poppy, sobbing as if her heart would break.”
Luigi made a clucking sound. “Povera Poppy,” he said. “La vita e molto dura per la bella Poppy.”
“Life is hard for pretty Poppy,” Cass echoed. “An Italian would do something—” he began, but then he fell silent. He could put down his own kin no further.
Pursing his lips together, Luigi made ready for a pronouncement. “Somewhere in one of the plays of Gabriele D’Annunzio,” he said, “there is a certain line, relating to the innate conflict between man and woman. A magnificent line. I believe it’s from // sogno d’un mattino di primavera. Although now that I think of it, it might come from La città morta. It goes”—his eyes revolved about as he considered—”it goes, ‘La donna e l’uomo …’ Something, something, something. Confound it, I can’t seem to recall the words. Something about the necessity for a man to escape from women, or something on that order. ‘La donna e l’uomo … “ I’m almost sure it’s from La città. …” His voice trailed off. “Are you listening?”
By God, he thought, it was Leopold, after all. The burning sensation—part pain, part hunger—had begun to creep upward into his gorge, causing him to yearn for a belch that would not come; he felt weak and giddy but this feeling, he knew, would pass away as soon as the wine’s blessed anesthesia to
But Luigi, already, had lost touch with D’Annunzio. Suddenly his eyes brightened and he snapped his fingers. “Cass! I just remembered, I have the very thing for you!”
“Have they invented a plastic stomach?”
“No, no. No joke. Someone to help you.” He nodded his head toward the shadowy interior of the cafe. “The padrona here. Sig-nora Carotenuto. Early this morning she told me about an aunt of hers. She is an elderly woman of some means who used to live in Sambuco but who now lives in Naples and comes back here from time to time to engage in charitable work with the nuns. Now just by chance there came to the convent last evening while Sig-nora Carotenuto’s aunt was there, an ugly peasant hag from Tra-monti in the most pathetic state imaginable. Please pay attenion, Cass.”
“I’m spellbound, Luigi.”
“Now this woman, along with her entire family, is the victim of the most terrible circumstances. Which is to say,” he drawled, savoring a dramatic pause, “which is to say that she and her family have been assaulted by fiendish calamities the likes of which it would take the mind of a Dante to devise. According to Sig-nora Carotenuto, whose aunt was present at the time, the woman was in a terrible way. Claiming to be forty, though in every way she looked twice the age, she came to the door of the convent last night hysterical with grief and desperation. Her eyes were glassy, her lips were streaked with spittle, and upon her cheeks there were crimson flecks of blood. Thinking her possessed of the fits, the sisters took her in and laid her down on a pallet, where, finally coming to her senses, she babbled out the most harrowing tale of woe. The blood, it turned out, came from biting her lips and tongue. You see, she had run the whole five kilometers to town up from the valley of Tramonti.”
“Why, for the love of God?” Cass said.
“Patience, my friend. I’m coming to that. What evidently had happened was this, according to the story told by Signora Caro-tenuto’s aunt. The woman’s husband, a tuberculous farmer who owns one sick cow whose milk he sells here in Sambuco—this woman’s husband had the misfortune to fall off the roof of the cowshed which he was repairing and break his leg. Frantic with anxiety, the woman left the children in the care of the eldest daughter and ran, as I have told you, all the way to Sambuco to summon the doctor. Now here comes the distressing part. The doctor—do you know him, Caltroni, a plumpish man with a pince-nez?”
“Plumpish? Fat, don’t you mean, Luigi? Yes, I know of him. I saw him yesterday, flailing away at a dog.” The image came back, and it lingered troublesome and haunting in his mind as Luigi spoke. “Incompetent, I’d say.”
“There’s no need to run down Caltroni, Cass. In spite of his background, Dr. Caltroni is no quack. He is a competent physician, poorly recompensed and overburdened by work and by patients who either cannot or will not pay for his services. Which is in line with the story I’m telling you. For this peasant woman came to him and demanded that he come right away and attend to her husband’s leg. He turned her away—”
“That was a miserable thing to do—”
“No, not at all. Rightly so, as a matter of fact, because although it was an unfortunate thing to have to do and although I’m sure that Caltroni, who is a true humanist at heart, was saddened by her plight, it nonetheless transpires that for ten years he has been attending to the ills of this wretched family without receiving one lira for his services. There is, after all, a point where one must draw the line.”
“I don’t follow you, Luigi. Suppose the poor clod was bleeding to death. Where would you draw the line on that?”
But Luigi was not interested in this ethical caution. “Let me go on. I’m getting to something that might fascinate you. The woman, as I have said, came in desperation to the convent. Now although the sisters there are not members of a nursing order, it happily turned out that one of the nuns, a big burly woman, had training in the care of the sick. Together with the peasant woman, she and Signora Carotenuto’s aunt hurried back to Tra-monti, where they found the peasant as described, writhing in pain on the earth outside his hut and calling upon heaven—according to Signora Carotenuto’s aunt—to end his suffering. And indeed such suffering, she said, had to be witnessed to be adequately expressed. I myself can certainly imagine it, for although I have not been back to that paese since before the war I can remember seeing it as a youth and having indelibly engraved upon my mind its sordidness and corruption. Signora Carotenuto’s aunt apparently was quite undone as she described it. It turns out that not only the father was tubercular but at least two of the children —all of them hacking and wheezing there in one room no larger than your bedroom at the Palazzo d’Affitto. Well, into the windowless place they brought the peasant and laid him down. The nurse-sister set his leg in a splint and there he now lies helpless and no doubt doomed.”
Interrupting his recital, Luigi sat back, looking sorrowful, though, like a fat cat, contented. Over the square now the sun rose flaming-white and scorching in a clear blue sky. A bustle and stir had commenced in the vicinity. A blue tourist bus halted near the fountain, and down upon its blinking passengers bore Umberto, publicity man for the Bella Vista, weasel-faced, wearing the headpiece of a major general, able to harass and annoy in five languages. On flat heels two skinny American college girls slatted past, breastless and without buttocks and bandy-legged in the sagging costumes of their Wanderjahre; one, Cass heard, was called Bubba, or Barba, or something: each bearing trophy-like a quality of innocence through the sunny, swarming air, they passed out of sight. Saddened and depressed by Luigi’s tale, but also pricked with irritation, Cass turned back to the corporal, saying: “So what do you want me to do, vote Fascista, so this terrible situation will be corrected?”
“No, Cass, I’m not talking politics now.” He paused. “That was meant as a sly joke, wasn’t it? Well, I’m a tolerant person and I’ll ignore it,” he went on, with some sort of approximation of a humorous wink, “but you might just incidentally reflect that Tramonti, after having been under the control of the Communists, who didn’t do anything, is now in the hands of the Christian-Democrats—the American party, you know—and it is still as miserable as it ever was. Now I’m not saying that the Fascist—”
“Go on with your story.” God damn Luigi.
“Well, it’s simply this, Cass. The eldest girl of the family—I think she is about eighteen—just got down on her knees and implored the ladies to find her work. The interesting thing is—and I suppose it’s why Signora Carotenuto’s aunt took special note of it—is that the girl up until about a month ago used to work right here at this cafe. She can cook well, it seems, and do housework, and she is willing to work for next to nothing. Indeed, so cruel is the condition of the family that I would not be surprised if she would work for only the food that she would be allowed to take away. For you it’s a perfect—”
“Look, Luigi,” Cass said, “all this is very well and good. Let’s say that some miracle happened and I could afford her. Let’s say I just gave her food. For Poppy’s sake—which is to say for the children’s sake and my own sanity—I’d do anything to get somebody who would keep the place habitable for humans. But do you want to add T.B. to the endless list of ulcers and hangovers and colic and head colds that la famiglia Kinsolving—”
“Ah, I should have explained,” he broke in, “this one—this wench—is free of the disease. I think she had it once, according to Signora Carotenuto, but she worked as a domestic in Amalfi for two years, where the cool air and salubrious climate was for her a complete remission.” He spoke of Amalfi as if it were as remote as Denmark. “It is said that she speaks some English, too, which for Poppy—It would be a real charity, I think, if you’d—But here, I’ll go get Signora Carotenuto and let you talk to her yourself.” And before Cass could say anything, Luigi had risen from the table, stalking off into the cafe to search for Signora Carotenuto.
He looked down at the
Set This House on Fire by William Styron / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes