Set this house on fire, p.49
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       Set This House on Fire, p.49

           William Styron

  They asked no permission, permission being not only unneeded but beyond remotest contemplation. “Jesus Christ, smell it!” said Lonnie, as the stench—of dirt and sweat and rancid fat cooked up a multitude of times and of too many human bodies in one place, of bathless crotch and armpit, of poverty naked and horrid and unremitting—struck them in the face; Cass drew back gasping. “Nigger house stinks worse than a whorehouse!” Lonnie bawled. “Whoop! Let’s get that radio and get out of here!” The radio was not directly found; every country nigger had spies in town, Lonnie explained as they tramped through the deserted cabin; they knew when you’re coming to get something, and they hid it. Crawfoot had hid it well. Remorselessly Lonnie searched, with Cass trailing indifferently after, behind the woodstove, beneath the bed and beneath the single stained and reeking mattress, down behind the soot-smeared sills underneath the roof, in the privy outside and in the tiny lime-smelling chicken coop and, backtracking, in the house again, where Lonnie, stubbing his toe against a sprung floorboard, finally reached down behind the planking and, triumphant, fished up the pathetic radio —white, plastic, already cracked, not much larger than a box of salt or rice, which had brought witchery in the night and tinny bright sounds of singing and laughter. “Hid it!” said Lonnie. “The wise sonofabitch.” A great slanting beam of yellow sunlight, trembling with dust, gushed through the door and filled the house with hazard, with immensity, with flame; Cass remembered this, and the buzzing flies, and joining indissolubly with the whistle of a train in the pine barrens far off, high and rending in that captured moment of South and summer, the single photograph on a table which caught his eye—the family, the man and his wife and his many children and two quizzical white-haired old matriarchs of some other generation, all solemn and standing stiff and straight in cheap Sunday-go-to-meeting, the two-for-a-dollar snapshot already fading and taking on the bluish hue of age but imprisoning still behind its cracked pane of glass one sweetly gentle, calm-visaged mood of solidarity and pride and love. He remembered, too, how this dissolved—or splintered, rather, right before his eyes—as Lonnie (spying the crack on the radio’s plastic side he let out a wounded yell which broke in on Cass’ reverie like the sound of broken glass) in a frantic swing of rage and frustration and unstoppered resentment thrust his hand violently forward, sweeping with his arm every jar and bottle and can of beans off the shelf above the stove, the momentum carrying him on so that in a sort of final flick or encore of wrath he lighted upon the photograph and sent it spinning across the room, where it tore apart—frame, glass, and all—into two raggedly separated pieces. “Shit!” Cass heard him cry, in a voice pitched near hysteria. “Not only he don’t pay for it, he went and broke it, too!” Nor was this the end, it was only the beginning. For as Cass, struck now with horror (though with a queasy visceral feeling of excitement, too), looked at Lonnie, saw the mashed-in face break up into a commotion of pink patches like rouge, he made an involuntary step to retrieve the picture but was fetched up short by Lonnie’s voice again: “Well, we’ll see about who breaks what!” And then pivoted on his toes, and with the other leg outthrust like a fullback punting a football shot a cowboy-boot-shod foot out against the flimsy kitchen table, hard, and brought the whole clutter of china cups and plates and saucers, sugar in cans, flour and meal and bacon fat, down to the floor in one monstrous and godawful detonation. And from then on he was quiet, giving forth only the faint asthmatic wheezes of a man possessed and in extremity as he went through the cabin upturning chairs, yanking from their moorings the dingy curtains, raking to the floor all such gimcrack mementos as had brought to this place color and loveliness—china dolls, a plaster bulldog brightly enameled, picture postcards (one of which Cass snatched up: Hello All Haveing fine time up hear Love Bertrim) and a pennant, he strangely, wrenchingly recalled, which read University of Virginia. These came to the floor, as did a maple Grand Rapids chiffonier, a patent heirloom, which Lonnie pried away from the wall and toppled earthward with a squeal of sliding drawers and the snapping uproar of sprung joints and pegs and corners. “That’ll teach him!” Lonnie howled. “Where you goin’?” Cass, panicky, had raced already to the open door, froze in mid-stride at the sound of Lonnie’s voice. “Come on!” he commanded. “This’ll teach every black son of a bitch in this county!” But, “Ain’t you done enough! Ain’t you done enough!” These words, Cass recalled, hung unspoken at the back of his throat—troubled, horrified, but unspoken—and therein, he knew, lay his ponderous share of the blame. For although he was sickened to his entrails in a way he had never been, his newborn manhood—brought to its first test—had failed him. Not only did something within him refuse to allow him to give voice to the monstrousness he felt at his heart and core, but this—

  “So he told me to come on,” he said, gazing out over the river, as if to summon up all of that bereaved moment entire—ravaged hut wrapped in its stench of poverty and decay, and summery afternoon, and flies buzzing, and bumblebees. “He told me to come on. What was I standing there for? We had to teach every crooked nigger in the county. So we went over to the stove. It was one of those big black cast-iron jobs, I remember, and it was heavy. And what I mean is this. It was wrong, I knew. No, not just wrong—awful, monstrous, abominable. I knew this to my very soul. That goddam picture, and that postcard I’d picked up where he’d thrown it, with this scrawl on it—and that broken plaster bulldog—my heart was near about torn from its roots. But what, for God sake? What made me do it? What?

  “That bleeding stove. It was a heavy bugger, see? And on top of it I remember there was a big dishpan filled with dirty water. Well, what happened was, Lonnie grabbed hold underneath, and so did I, and we began to heave and heave until it started to tilt and the dishpan began to slide off. And then you know I remember this, see, how as we stood there bent over heaving and sweating a tremendous warm excitement came over me, a feeling that—well, it was almost a feeling of anger, too, as if I’d picked up some of this young lout of a maniac’s fury and was set on teaching the niggers, too. By God, this feeling, you know, I remember it—it was in my loins, hot, flowing, sexual. I knew it was wrong, I knew it, I knew it—bestial, horrible, abominable. I knew all this, understand, but it was as if once I’d lost my courage anyway, once I’d given in—like some virgin, you see, who’s finally stopped struggling and said to hell with it—then I could actually do what I was doing almost even with a sense of righteousness. All the cliches and shibboleths I’d been brought up with came rolling back—a nigger wasn’t much more than an animal anyway, specially field niggers, crooked niggers like this Crawfoot—so I heaved and pushed there with Lonnie, and the legs of the stove became unstuck and it tilted more and more and finally the whole bleeding mess went toppling over with one hell of a roar and a crash, water and all, stove and stovepipe and dishpan, until it turned that poor little house into what looked like something hit by a tornado… .”

  He fell silent and although I waited for him to speak again, he said nothing.

  “Well, what happened then?” I said finally.

  “That was all,” he said. “All. We left then. At least it was all I ever heard about it. Oh, maybe Crawfoot complained, I don’t know, but if he did nobody ever said anything to me or Lonnie. Of course Crawfoot should have complained—he’d probably have gotten a fair shake from the sheriff—but there was that radio, after all. I don’t know. I went back anyway, soon after that, back to Carolina. But you know it’s true,” he added after a pause.

  “What?” I said.

  “Until all those well-meaning people up North understand characters like Lonnie, and characters like this young Epworth Leaguer Cass Kinsolving, this downy Christian who was age fifteen and pure of heart and mind, and didn’t mean no harm, really, to nobody, but was cruel and dangerous as almighty hell —until they understand about such matters and realize that they’ve got as many Lonnies and as many young Casses in dear old Dixie as they’ve got boll weevils, they’d better tread with care. It’s those two guys that
s going to make the blood flow in the streets.” He paused. “But what I’m getting at is something else, you see. It was bad enough to do what I did. Certain things are so monstrous there is no atonement for them, no amends. I reckon I should be able to tell you a nice redemption story, about how I maybe robbed the auto store at night and went back to that cabin and laid a hundred dollars on the doorstep, to pay for all the wreckage. Or ran down Lonnie with a truck. Something clean and honorable like that, very American and all. But of course I didn’t. I went on back home and put the whole thing out of my mind.” He fell silent for a moment again, then said: “Except I didn’t put the whole thing out of my mind at all.” He rose from his seat against the pine stump, and stood erect, gazing out over the river.

  “No, there are no amends or atonement for a thing like that. But there is another thing, and though it won’t bring back any busted stove or plaster bulldog or picture either, it’s something, and it’s strong. What I mean is, you live with it. You live with it even when you’ve put it out of your mind—or think you have—and maybe there’s some penance or justice in that.

  “I think maybe sometimes you’ll be able to see how this figured in with what happened to me there in Sambuco. I remember that morning so well. The nightmare, and the chills running up and down my back—these chills of pure recognition and understanding—and then, after that, just lying there, for the first time in as long as I could remember thinking of Lonnie and his ugly flat mug, and the cabin and the smell, and the picture and those sweet sad proud black faces, like ghosts still haunting me after so many years. And the guilt and the shame half-smothering me there in bed, adding such a burden to the guilt and shame I already felt that I knew that, shown one more dirty face, one more foul and unclean image of myself, I would not be able to support it.

  “And then that morning! Staggering out into that lemony spring morning afloat with pollen and bees, and a strumming of music and rich-throated huckstering shouts and cries and a great shrilling choir of birds as if the Lord Himself had turned into a field full of fat larks gone all berserk with beauty and joy. And me adrift in the midst of all this ecstasy—hung-over, hacking up my guts, and feeling about the size of a gnat. That nightmare kept working on me, coming back in sort of fitful flickers. I felt like slitting my throat.

  “And then on top of that there was Mason and this damn Kasz business.”

  “What was that?”

  “Well, this painter fellow Kasz that Mason got me confused with. One thing, I’d never even heard of him, famous as he was. That’s how far I was removed from America and the art world and so on. It was really quite comical—the first part—in a grisly way. What apparently happened, you see, was this. Mason had just landed in Naples with Rosemarie and this cerise Cadillac of his and he came up to Sambuco and became so smitten by the place that he figured this would be just the spot to settle down in and write his play. Well, what I gathered later is that he fell into conversation with Windgasser, who not only sold Mason on taking up quarters in the palace, but also let drop the fact that there was an American painter living downstairs. Now you know that marble-mouthed way of speaking Windgasser had. He says ‘Cass’ in an offhand way probably, and Mason jumps to the conclusion that it’s the famous mad painter of Rimini. I don’t guess it was very sharp of Mason, but it was an honest enough mistake, given Windgasser’s diction, and given Mason’s personality, and you know this kind of letch he had for—well, capital-A art and artists, this Bohemian streak he had. And even someone as coony as Mason could forget that Kasz was a bachelor and lived in Rimini with his mother and so on. Anyway, what he obviously thought was that I was this crazy Polack, this wonder-boy of American art, and he moved right on in upstairs. God only knows what he was really thinking, but it might have been something like: This is it. Man oh man I’m in clover. Me and old Kasz, living it up art wise on the Amalfi coast. Shuck all that phony movie and Broadway world I’ve been in so long and finally get cracking on the vie artistique. I think he figured it’d be just him and Kasz, living it up together from then on out. Sort of like all the great historic friendships—you know, Van Gogh and Gauguin—only he’d be the writing end and Kasz’d be the painting and sculpting end and they’d go down through the ages together, hand in hand, as cozy as two burrs on a hound-dog’s ear. Only to really get this good thing going he had to be quite cool and calm and collected about it, if you see what I mean. That is, he couldn’t present himself and go in there with a couple of big paws stuck out and drooling all over like some auxiliary Elk. Especially I guess when he must have heard that this guy was something of an oddball and might take a poke at him if he looked like he was some tourist on the make. No, he had to be real cool and reserved, you see, and all the ass-kissing had to come in very subtly, and that’s just what he done.

  “Well anyway, that morning I was standing there on the balcony, trying to get that nightmare out of my system, when I heard this big commotion out in the courtyard. What it was, of course, was a bunch of Fausto’s slaves tramping about and carrying Mason’s junk up to the top part of the palace. Such elegant paraphernalia you never saw—aluminum luggage and leather luggage and golf clubs and a dozen hatboxes and God knows what all. I just stood there blinking for a while in my skivvies, trying to figure out what was going on and who had come to stay, and then just as I started to go back inside, the outer door to the courtyard flung itself open, and there he stood—this loose long lanky Mason, handsome as a Vitalis ad and looking about as American as it’s possible to get, with his huge beautiful Rosemarie clutching at his arm. I can remember it as clearly as I can remember anything in my life—Mason standing there with this sort of expensive white flannel costume on, and sun glasses, and a pleasant inquisitive half-grin on his face, as amiablelooking as you’d ever want to ask, along with this really ingratiating quality of being somewhat lost and confused and being ever so grateful if you’d just point him in the right direction, and with that great blond undulating hunk of sex, that wonderful Rolls-Royce of a humping machine draped over his elbow. And then as I stood there with my mouth hanging open, Mason stepped forward with Rosemarie slinking beside him and came up to me and said, cool but oh so infinitely polite: ‘Cass?’ He was just chock-full of politesse and humanity and good breeding, and he stuck out his hand and without knowing it I stuck out mine and took it, and then he gave a thin well-bred friendly little smile, saying, ‘I’ve been wanting to meet you very, very much,’ and it was all done with such grace and aplomb that it would have melted the heart out of a brass monkey. Well, what do you do in a situation like that? I guess at first it flashed through my mind that this was the beginning of some kind of a con game, yet he really didn’t look like a man who was out to sell me anything—he was too beautifully decked out for that—and I suppose I just figured that if he wanted to call me by my first name it was a little forward and familiar coming from a total stranger, but he was an American, after all, and Americans were glad-handers in general, and that if he wanted to meet me very much it was only because Windgasser had told him I was an old hand, more or less,. and he wanted to get checked out on life in Sambuco. Anyway, I was a real pushover, I’ll tell you.

  “So I allowed as how I was me and just as I tried to apologize for being in my underdrawers he introduced me to Rosemarie, and she gave a sort of whinny—I think she must have been as awe-struck at what she thought was the golden boy of art as Mason was, or even more so—and bubbled that she was so pleased to meet me and all, and stuck those beautiful knockers in my face, and said, ‘We’d heard you were ever so unapproach able. Why, there’s nothing stand-offish about you at all!’ I remember that word, stand-offish. Frankly I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about, but if that’s what she had heard about me and I wasn’t that way at all, and if she was willing to come here and parade that beautiful lush body around and give me the impression that she was ready to smother me with it on the spot, then I didn’t care what she was driving at. All that flesh! That tremendous hea
ving wonderland of a groaning carnal paradise! To think that that great walking Beautyrest of a woman was all wasted on Mason. It’s enough to break your heart, even now.

  “Anyway, there wasn’t too much else to do but invite them in. I put on a pair of pants and of course the place looked like an accident ward, but as a matter of fact I imagine that’s just what they were set up to expect from a mad genius. On the way in I remember Mason patting me on the back and saying, ‘somehow I expected a more frail and wiry person.’ Well, I guess it crossed my mind that Fausto had given him a complete if inaccurate rundown on me, and I vaguely wondered why, but I was still in the dark, see—deaf, dumb, and blind—so I shrugged it off and muttered something pleasant and got the conversation switched around to him. Because up until then he hadn’t explained himself at all. So while I was fixing up the coffee on the hot plate and Rosemarie stood at the window ooh-ing and ah-ing at the view, old Mason just plunked himself down in the armchair and rared back and really gave me the works. What a snow job! Said he was doing Europe and all, said he was fed up with the New York rat race, and said he finally realized that here in Sambuco was the place he’d always longed for. And it’s funny, you know, the impression he created while he talked—it was all as charming as hell. These little wry jokes about himself, and funny little puns and sour remarks and so on. And the way he conveyed to me that he was a playwright and a man of talent—it was subtle as hell. Things like saying in a flat, offhand, mildly disgusted voice, “Critical success in the theater, you know, is synonymous with popular success,’ and you must hand it to him, that’s about as cagey and collected as you can get in the fine art of prevarication, because it was in regard to a play of his he said had been produced the year before, and had flopped. I mean, a real clumsy cross-eyed blunderer of a liar would have fallen all over himself trying to snow a person with his success. But not Mason. No, you see, too fragrant a lie would get found out. So he works on the premise that Waldo probably don’t keep up with the theater, being so far away and doubtless having little interest in it anyway, so that a nice soft medium-sized lie will do, and he very artfully mentions his play, and says that it flopped, and tags on this kind of embittered but manfully stoical remark about critical and popular success, so that in the end the effect is simply that of a dedicated artist who has been hooted down by the rabble and the dimwitted critics yet has the courage to keep his chin up and struggle on. What an actor Mason was! He could have sold rotgut whiskey to the W.C.T.U. He sure impressed me, all right, so that by the time we’d finished the coffee and he’d dropped a few names—but tastefully, you see, and just the ones anybody might recognize in the theater—we were almost what you might say buddy-buddy—no, not that exactly, but I’d taken a shine to him, in a casual way.

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