Set this house on fire, p.48
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       Set This House on Fire, p.48

           William Styron

  He was in an airplane. High above the Andes he flew, in drifts of cloud and mist, above Aconcagua and Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, their peaks threatening, billowing with the dark fleece and rack of a thousand soundless storms. The plane was crowded with faceless people; there was a constant dim murmuration—a faintly heard, barely discerned babble of humming and chuckles and remote sibilant whispers—and this murmuration chilled him to the bone, touched as it was with the sound of doom. Music, too, attended this flight of his through space, a discordant, atonal sound as of some bizarre ensemble playing off-key yet in unison, a saxophone, a harpsichord, a tuba, a kazoo; and the music like the constant ebb and flow and hum of voices seemed tinged with premonitions of death. Presently then he got up and went to the bathroom. There was a shower stall here—a strange accommodation, he thought, for an airline, for it was vast and made of concrete and in the corners there were damp, enormous webs where spiders as big as saucers feasted upon struggling insects. Panic enveloped him, and terror; the plane pitched and rocked, and as it did so he found himself taking off all his clothes. Then—wonder of wonders —he had withdrawn from himself. Standing aside, clammy and wet with horror, he saw his other self, naked now, step into the shower and, with the numb transfixed look of one already dead, turn on all the faucets full blast. The spiders trembled in their webs, shriveling; a sense of strangulation, of asphyxia. Christ! he heard his watching self dream, for it was not water which emerged from the nozzles but the billowing jets of suffocating gas. The murmuration grew in volume and tempo, joined by the tuba, ponderously belching, and the panic kazoo. Now naked and blue beneath the rush of gas, his other self grew rigid, skin shiny as a turquoise bead, and toppled soundless to the floor, all life extinct. And he, watching, tried to reach out to his corpse, but here several sporty Negroes entered, shouldering him aside, and leaned over the blue body, shaking their heads and grieving. “Man, why did you kill him?” one said, looking up. “Man, why did you let him die?” But before he could answer the Negro, the plane pitched again, vibrating as if rent by mammoth claps of thunder. And now a ripe mulatto girl, entering too, seeing the cadaver, shrieked, shrieked again and again and, as if to obliterate the sight not just from her own but from all eyes, pulled down a shade upon which was written, in blood, this message …

  He awoke half-strangled beneath the bedclothes, blotting out the message from his mind even as he awoke, and with chill after chill of terror, of insight and knowledge and recognition, coursing through him like the recurring rhythmic ague that accompanies fever.

  “Nossir,” Cass told me, “I didn’t know what that message was, but I knew something else. I mean this crazy chill and thrill of understanding that kept running through me as I lay there in the shadows. I knew something”

  “How do you mean?”

  “Well, dreams, you know. I never put much stock in them. That is, those naval wig pickers in San Francisco used to try to worm a few of them out of me, figuring that they’d be able to plug in on my most intimate circuits, I reckon. I knew they probably had something there and all—I wasn’t that ignorant—but it did seem to me that it was pretty much my own private business, so whenever they asked me what I dreamt about, I just told them I dreamt about pussy and let it go at that… .”


  “Except, as I say, I knew they were probably on the right track. It really doesn’t take any supreme genius to know that these various horrors and sweats you have when you’re asleep add up to something, even if these horrors are masked and these sweats are symbols. What you’ve got to do is get behind the mask and the symbol… .

  “Well, God knows. Jigaboos everywhere! Ever since I’d been in Europe about half of whatever nightmares I’d had—the ones I remembered, anyway—had been tied up with Negroes. Negroes in prison, Negroes being gassed, me being gassed, Negroes watching me while I was being gassed. Like that terrible dream I had in Paris. There was always a nigger in the woodpile somewhere, and you’d have thought that as a nice southern boy who was maybe just a little brighter than some of my cornfield brethren I’d have had it all doped out a little bit sooner. But the fact of the matter, you know—and it’s probably a blessing—is that dreams, even horrible nightmares, have a way of slipping out of sight once you’re awake, with the cobwebs out of your eyes. I say it’s a blessing, because I’ll bet you there’s not one white southerner over the age of fifteen—ten! five!—who hasn’t had nightmares just like the one I told you about, or at least variations upon it, replete with Negroes, and blood, and horror. Suppose these nightmares lingered? You’d turn the Southland into a nuthouse… .”

  He paused. “Well, I don’t want to sermonize. I guess like your old man—or what you’ve told me about him—I’m a way-out liberal, for a southerner anyway. Comes from living with the Yankees for so long and marrying one. On the other hand, I despise these goddam northerners who’ve never been south of Staten Island and are out to tell everybody down here they’ve got to hew to the line, right now by God, with no wait and no pause and because we know it’s good for you, and it’s humane, and it’s decent and American, and who pretend that Harlem and the Chicago ghettoes don’t exist. The bastards just don’t know what’s going on down here.

  “But no sermonizing. The point is that there in Europe I was being wakened up in many different ways. God knows it was tough, and sometimes you’d never know it from some of the things I did, but I was being awakened, and now I can see that some of these dreams and nightmares which I remember so vividly were a part of the awakening.

  “Take that dream I told you about. Well, first—try to remember. When you were a kid did you ever holler ‘nigger’ at anybody?”

  I reflected for a moment. “Yes,” I said. “What kid hasn’t? I mean in the South.”

  “Did you ever do anything else—mean, that is—to someone who was colored? Really mean, that is?”

  Pondering my early youth, I could dredge up nothing more sinister than that sorry old epithet, hoarsely shouted. “We’d yell at them from the school bus I used to ride on,” I said. “Maybe some of the other boys would heave a rotten orange. Nothing more than that. They’re rather genteel about such matters in Virginia, you know.”

  “That’s what you think,” he said sourly, but with a sort of smile.

  “What do you mean?”

  “Well, that morning—the same morning I ran into Mason—when I woke up with that dream still hovering in my mind, these chills were still going up and down my back, these chills of recognition, you see, and all of a sudden I knew what it all meant. No, it wasn’t as clear and as pat as all that, but right there simultaneously with my waking up I remembered something wretched and horrible that I had done when I was about fifteen years old—something really dreadful and wicked that I must have kept way back in my mind all these years. And floating over me like the palest big fat blob of a balloon you ever saw was the image of this guy I hadn’t thought of in so long that for a while I couldn’t remember his name. Then it came back to me. Lonnie.

  “Lonnie,” he repeated.


  “Well, let me tell you about it.” And now, on the lovely river Ashley, lolling against a pine stump, he told me of something which, seventeen years before, had brought him for the first time into the slovenly presence of shame. He told of the summer of his fifteenth year—or was he sixteen? One year either way, no matter how you looked at it, could not mitigate the crime—when his uncle bought him a bus ticket and farmed him out (as had been his habit from time to time during those depression years when the bottom dropped out of the bright-leaf tobacco market) to a first cousin once removed, Hoke Kinsolving by name, who lived up in southside Virginia in a dinky sun-blistered town called Colfax, pop. 1,600, altitude sea level, in a part of the commonwealth no tourist intent on Williamsburg palaces and elegant river mansions had ever seen or heard of, and boasting in the business way only a peanut warehouse, a lumber mill, a sagging cotton gin and a Western Auto store. Cass remembered that
summer for many things (fifteen! He must have been, for he came to manhood then, neither early nor late, but enormously and unforgettably, as all men do, in this case after watching Veronica Lake in the sweltering one-horse movie house, and later half-fainting in the throbbing dark, among the summery-smelling mimosas behind his cousin’s house)—for the mimosas themselves and their pale pink watery blossoms, and the dust rising from the scorched back alleys of the town, and old ladies fanning themselves on front porches drenched in green shadow, and mockingbirds caroling thunderously at sunup—for a hundred gentle memories, purely summer, purely southern, which swarmed instantly through his mind, though one huge memory encompassed all. Vaguely, this involved his cousin Hoke, who, being a corn and peanut farmer nearly as poor as his old uncle, got him a part-time job at the Western Auto store, working in the back among the stacked-up tires and cartons of radio tubes and hubcaps and tools odorous of rubber and oil; more distinctly, more clearly, more threateningly, it came to mean someone called Lonnie (if he had a last name Cass never knew it), who was a man of twenty-one or so with bad teeth and a caved-in sallow face and a broad plastered-down wig of unparted, Lucky Tiger fragrant, custard-colored hair. Lonnie was the assistant manager. Now, had I ever been to Sussex County and seen a real Virginia gentleman in operation? No? Ecco Lonnie then, who to be sure was somewhat unlettered, a Baptist and only half a cut removed from trash and all, yet a soul neither deluded nor demented and the fairest flower of southern manhood. Let us remember, too, that this was Virginia, Peter, my own Virginia, the Virginia of stately chateaux and green carpeted lawns and bony aristocrats on horseback, the Virginia of the outlawed lynching and the soft word and the enlightened (mildly) Jeffersonian notion of justice—not Mississippi, not Alabama, not Georgia, but the Old Dominion, home of conservatism leavened by gentility and breeding and by a gentlemanly apprehension of democracy. To be sure, Colfax was not that Virginia so dear to chamber-of-commerce pamphleteers—the sunny commonwealth containing so many varied riches: eighteenth-century ladies richly draped in velvet and crinoline, by candlelight shepherding the credulous fritter-stuffed visitor through opulent hallways at Westover and Shirley and Brandon; or darkies starched to the neck and in cocked hats and satin pantaloons looking just like they did when Marse William Byrd owned the whole James River from Richmond to the sea; or that quaint ivy-shuttered church where Patrick Henry voiced his immortal cry for freedom —no, this was a Virginia that no one ever knew, the flat hot Virginia of swamps and scrub pine and sludgy lowland rivers and pigs snorting among the peanut vines, and flop-eared mules, but all the same Virginia. And Lonnie.

  Well, Lonnie had a queer way with Negroes, Cass went on, the shy, faltering field niggers who in that county were well over half of the population. A really queer way, around the store. Not that there was any hostility in him, any meanness or severity; indeed, it was all quite to the opposite. Badinage was his trick, and cajolery, and such a light-hearted tomfoolishness marked his way with the customers that you might have thought that he was the darkies’ original friend—not a nigger lover, understand, for his manner was loaded with too much condescension for that. Nonetheless, with all of his raillery and banter, his knowing digs, the teasing patter he’d keep up through some fifty-cent transaction, you might never have suspected that behind those mashed-in features and beneath that blond pomaded hair raked so slickly back was boiling trouble, ready to explode. Certainly Cass, if he could remember having given Lonnie and his breezy ways any thought at all, was full of approval; he was old enough to appreciate that southern remark, “He gets along good with the niggers,” which in mercantile circles is meant as a compliment, and implies good business. Take that afternoon in August, for instance—the one Cass recalled so well—and take the way that Lonnie dealt with a certain grizzled old-timer, black as doom itself, who shambled in to buy a radiator-cap ornament for his 1931 Model-A Ford. Blazing heat, and the smell of oil and a vulcanized odor, and sticky flies zigzagging over all. “You mean this ain’t fancy enough, Jupe?” says Lonnie, yellow teeth bared in a cackle of wicked laughter. “You say you want that nekkid woman anyway? Why by damn, Jupe, an old buzzard like you oughta be ashamed of yourself! Haw! Haw! Haw!” The old man stands sagging in his overalls, a shy smile creases his face. “Taint for me, boss. Like I says, it’s my youngest boy’s—” “Don’t give me any of that, Jupe,” says Lonnie, grinning, bare elbows on the counter. “I know why you want that nekkid woman. It’s because an old buzzard like you hasn’t got any more lead in your pencil. You just want that nekkid lady sittin’ there out front all the time, so you can get just one more hard-on before you die. Now ain’t that right, Jupe? Haw! Haw! Haw!” The old man remains perplexed, embarrassed, grinning, runs a finger through his sparse grizzled hair. “Nossuh, Mistah Lonnie. To tell the truth, my youngest boy—” The words avail him nothing; for five minutes Lonnie teases, nags, cajoles. Large issues are joined: blasted virility, the ravages of age, waning powers, rejuvenation; Lonnie mentions monkey glands, goat serum, a doctor in Petersburg who has done wonders for old buzzards like Jupe. Jupe sweats; Lonnie babbles on: it is hot, business is off, he is bored. At last Lonnie calls to Cass. “Get me that nekkid lady, Cass.” Then, “O.K., Jupe,” he says largely, “that’ll cost you a dollar more’n the other kind.”

  Later, Cass recalled—sometime later that very afternoon—Lonnie stuck his head into the stockroom, with a quick jerk of his neck said: “All right, boy, come on. We got to go out toward Stony Creek and dispossess a radio. Hump it, boy.” Cass humped it. He climbed into the cab of the pickup truck next to Lonnie and they headed out of town. Had Lonnie been afraid, afraid to go through this simple operation alone, so that he required the company and support of a fifteen-year-old boy to redeem a defaulted radio from a Negro farmer who he knew would or could make no protest even if he had been at home; or did he concoct the whole plan beforehand, assuming that the man and his whole family would be in the fields most likely chopping cotton, and needing Cass to bolster him morally not to say physically in an act which already had taken outline in some far fuzzy corner of his brain? Or did what happened occur as a simple impulse of the moment? Cass never knew, nor until that morning he had been awakened in Sambuco by his nightmare had he ever really wondered—but did it matter, after all, since he himself had partaken so inescapably in the blame? He remembered the ride out through the flat hot fields of peanuts and soybean and cotton, and pinewoods blinding-green and tinder-dry, seeming almost to crackle with a parched quality of dryness both dusty and verging on combustion, the stench of gasoline seeping up through the rump-sprung seat as they jounced along, and above all Lonnie, crouched forward bare-elbowed against the wheel, mouthing over the clatter of the unmufflered engine gusts of countrified, come-to-manhood wisdom. “There’s all types of cul-lud, I’ll tell you. Good, bad, and in between. Some like that old Jupe there you could trust with every nickel you got. Almost like a white man.” Blue sky and fields, and a stretch of riverside stagnant, foam-flecked, greenly decaying; and a rickety brindle barn crazily aslant with signs on it: Copenhagen, nehi, bull Durham. “What this nigger Crawfoot is is a crook, criminal type.” Dusty fields, riverside again, a blue Greyhound bus, tires clattering and awhine, roaring southward. “And uppity, boy. He’s got a son lives up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Never saw such monkeyshines… . Most niggers’ll pay, see, give ’em enough time. Get a crooked nigger like this Crawfoot and he just plain don’t intend to pay, in no way, shape or form.” A moldering columned mansion, set back from the road among ponderous oak trees; a white metal sign of the commonwealth, glimpsed in a blur: plumtrees. here in april, 1864, union deserters from the army of general burnsides … “Criminal type like this Crawfoot is a disgrace on the whole nigger race.” On a rutted side road they turned off, bumping, toward a grove where a frame church stood with that breezeless, shadowed, weekday air of benison and tranquillity of Negro temples on a summer afternoon: SHILOH A.M.E. ZION CHURCH, REV. ANDREW SALTER, PASTOR, Matthew V, 6: “Blessed
are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled!” visitors welcome. Nearby, with a castoff rubber tire taller than themselves, two Negro children only a shadow beyond babyhood played in the dust of the road, turned in white-eyed apprehension at Lonnie’s command. “C’mere.” Stock-still, they made no move or sign. The truck pulled ahead twenty feet, stopped. “You kids deaf? Where’s a nigger named Crawfoot live?” No answer, only the wide-eyed look part incomprehension, part fear, or more exactly that emotion which is perhaps far less fear than the ordinary mistrust engendered by how many overheard hours of their elders’ bitter and wrathful and despairing complaints of injustices done and afflictions borne only young Negro children know, and which, reflected imperfectly in small black faces, white men mistake for reverence, or at least respect. Neither of them uttered a sound. “Cat got your tongue? Crawfoot!” he repeated. “Where’s he live at?” One thin young black arm finally went up, pointed down the road toward a cabin, dimly discerned among the pines and a shimmering gauze of pollen-white dust. “Young’uns near ’bout worse than the grownups,” said Lonnie, grinding gears. “Nits breed lice. That’s what Daddy always says.”

  And then the cabin itself, effaced these years from his memory, or if not effaced then only a dim blur amid the congeries of blurs that made up all his boyhood recollections, but now looming like some habitation whose every sagging board and termite-riddled sill and rusted nail he had committed with the solemnity of an oath to his mind and heart.

  “Fantastic!” Cass said beneath his breath, hardly aware at all of whom he was talking to now, as he brought forth a vision of this solitary and forlorn and benighted hut, surrounded by hollyhocks and a bumble of bees and tattered washing on a line, with three creaking rickety steps that rose to an unlocked door which Lonnie, shirt sweatily plastered at his back, threw open with a clatter. “Fantastic!” Cass repeated. “What we did!”

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