Set this house on fire, p.50
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       Set This House on Fire, p.50

           William Styron

  “Well, along about then began the really touching part. We sat there in the sunlight on the balcony for a while, chatting and admiring the view. About this time Rosemarie looked over and gave a kind of mental nudge to Mason. Then a little flicker passed across his face and he turned and beamed at me and said in the nicest way: ‘I wonder if you’d do us a really extraordinary favor. I know—’ And he paused, then went on: ‘Well, I know how reticent you are about showing your work to strangers. And the Lord knows I don’t want to appear presumptuous. But I wonder if you’d do us the great favor of letting us look at some of your work. We’d just—” And then he paused again with this sort of half-flustered and abashed look on his face, as if he felt he was being presumptuous after all. Then Rosemarie clutched her hands together and turned them outwards and tucked them into her crotch like women do, and she leaned forward and chimed in with a ‘Please do! Oh please do!’ Well, you could have dropped me on the spot with a broomstraw. Would I show them my work? Would I show them my work? Why, it was like asking some beat-up lifer of a convict if he’d care to have the keys to the front gate. Bleeding God, what a question to ask! In going on close to ten years I could count on my fingers the number of people who had wanted to see my work, or had seen it—outside of maybe Poppy and the kids, and the strays you pick up looking over your shoulder in the park or somewhere, and a couple of goofy dogs or so. Now here comes this nice, clean-cut, charming young American, and he’s not only so engaging and witty but he’s also dying to see my work—can you see how I might have been taken by the guy? Well, I guess I beamed a bit, and blushed, and went through the old gee-whiz routine, and then after a while I relented and said something like: ‘Well, if you really want to.’ And they began to look happy about that, and expectant, you know, and then all of a sudden it occurred to me that maybe all of us, both them and me, had bitten off a little bit more than we could chew. Because the fact of the matter was that—well, I just didn’t have a hell of a lot to show off. In the first place, I simply hadn’t done much in a long, long time. In the second place, practically everything I’d done that I considered halfway decent I’d done in America and had stored at Poppy’s house in New Castle, and all the rest I had with me—this really grim, interior, tight-assed stuff I’d done in Paris and Rome—was work I really couldn’t be proud of at all. But Mason and Rosemarie were still insisting and prodding me, you see, and as I say I was in quite a glow over all this attention—it still hadn’t occurred to me to wonder just who in hell had told them I was reticent—and so finally I got to my feet and gave a sort of boyish grin and said: ‘Well, if you really want to see them, it’s not much but—O.K.’ And I remember them giving these sly, knowing, tickled little looks to each other, pretty much for my benefit, all as if to say, ‘Heavens, how charming this guy is with all his modesty.’

  “So I went downstairs to the guardaroba where I had everything stored and I drug up all of this miserable, pallid, ineffectual, self-centered stuff I’d done for the past several years: five or six dreary figures and landscapes in oil, and some water colors, and seven or eight ink and crayon sketches—that was about all. And I brought the whole pathetic mess back upstairs and got some books out to prop up the unrolled canvases against the wall, and rummaged around and found some tacks to peg the upper corners to the molding, and set out the water colors and the sketches around the room so that they’d be displayed with the proper delicacy and dignity. And even as I was doing all this—proud and hopeful in a way, see, and just itching and itching for some kind of praise—I began to sweat and tighten up inside, knowing every second that it was all an outrageous disaster from beginning to end. But as you know, Mason was never one to be daunted by the mere realities of a situation, and neither was Rosemarie, for that matter. If this character was the young—the young tycoon of American art, the big wheel, the golden young Leonardo of the mid-twentieth century, well by God you can bet your hat and ass that Mason and Rosemarie were going to make no gaffes in the maestro’s presence. Nossir. They were going to be properly reverent and humble—not abased, see, not inferior or servile or anything like that, because that would be pretty unsophisticated—but just properly reverent about this magic art, and humble, just like anyone should be, after all, who doesn’t know or feel a goddam thing about painting, but is up on it, having gotten all the latest poop in Life magazine. So in they slunk from the balcony, wreathed in rosy expectation. Godalmighty, you should have seen them. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure them out. You couldn’t have asked for more wonderment, for more fatuous credulity, from a pair of beauticians on a pilgrimage to Albert Schweitzer. Or some other Great Soul. Yet still they were playing it cool, you see. They wanted to think about it a bit, to ponder and muse and absorb—to soak it up, if you see what I mean. So they began to pass very slowly around the room, lingering for a long time before each painting or sketch and murmuring to each other in these voices that were almost inaudible, and they were holding hands, and every now and then—with their backs to me, you see—I’d see Rosemarie’s hand clutch his in a kind of convulsion and she’d give a little gasp of wonderment or delight that I could barely hear, and they’d be cocking their heads to one side and another like a couple of parakeets. ‘Aha!’ Mason would say. ‘I see you’re flirting with the representational. Interesting phase.’ And I really mean it—I was snowed for a long while there. Because although I felt deep down that this stuff I had done was pretty feeble, who after all was I to tell? These two certainly didn’t seem to be fakers; if anything they seemed to be more honest and earnest—more genuine, you might say—than almost any young Americans I had seen in Europe. They seemed to really care, if you know what I mean, and perhaps I was all wrong about what I’d done. I remember that it passed across my mind with a sense of delight that was almost like rapture that maybe this, after all, was the turning point. I mean, maybe what I had done all this time was really terrific, was basically first-rate stuff, only my own miserable selfloathing had not allowed me to accept the fact or to grant the worth, so that all that had been needed all along was somebody like this guy Mason to hop out of nowhere like a genie from a bottle and put me on the road to acceptance and affirmation—salvation, even. What crap.

  “It wasn’t really too long before I began to sense vaguely that something really was quite screwy somewhere. They were just a little bit too wrapped up in this personal awe of theirs, you see. What with all the hand-squeezing and the sighing and so on, and Rosemarie’s little gasps and the husky sort of half-whistles Mason put out every now and then, I began to feel—well, somewhat ill—at-ease, I guess. And besides, I guess they figured it was time to open up a little, it was time for Act Two, and they began to make more comments. And they were the goddamdest comments you ever heard. I remember one in particular. In Rome I remember I’d gone up on the Palatine and made two or three sketches one day, each one worse than the next. I can’t describe them. They were tight-assed, if you know what I mean. That is, the basic idea was good, but nothing in them gave or flowered, spread out, encompassed, whatever the word is. They remained fidgety, selfish little corners of some private view, a bunch of aborted, stunted notions wriggling in a vacuum. I kept them anyway, I don’t know why—maybe because the idea at least had been good—and anyway I showed them to Mason and Rosemarie with all the rest. A school kid could have seen how aimless and pointless they were, but not Mason. And not Rosemarie, either. Because, as I say, the second act had begun and they had decided to show just how bleeding sharp and sensitive they were. Mason turned around and looked me square in the eye and said, ‘God, man, the sense of space. It’s absolutely uncanny.’ And Rosemarie wasn’t missing a trick, either, I’ll tell you. Without turning, and before Mason could open his mouth again, she stood there, with her head bent down on this poor little strangulated fetus of a drawing and I heard a long inspiration of breath and then she said, so help me God, ‘Not only space, Muffin. The incredible humanity.’

  “Well, I began to get a sneaky feelin
g right then and there. There wasn’t no more space or humanity in those drawings than you could stuff up the back end of a flea, really, but in spite of this I was about to put them down as a couple of misguided people who were nonetheless trying desperately to be kind, when Mason opened his mouth again, staring at me with these sort of soft, compassionate, wonder-filled eyes, and said: ‘They were right. You have a true vision. True and pure.’ Then wheeled about again quickly, as if he couldn’t trust his own emotions, and commenced looking and cocking his head and whistling once more. Well, now who in the hell were they? This time I guess you can imagine my suspicions really began to rise. They had me really buffaloed, these two, but mind you I still didn’t catch on to what was up. I guess it was too big an experience—I mean, having somebody interested in my work—for me to see clearly much farther than my own flattered ego. I just stood around behind them as they wandered around the room, clenching my hands together like Charlie Chan and licking my lips and coughing self-consciously every time they sighed or made a remark. Finally, after about ten minutes of this, they drew up to a halt before this canvas I’d done in Paris the year before—it wasn’t too bad, either, a sort of impressionistic thing with a lot of color of Montparnasse rooftops—and Mason went into his familiar spasm and turned and clenched his teeth and said something—oh, I forget exactly what, but it put me several hundred miles past Matisse—and then after a long pause he said: ‘Haven’t I seen this before?’ Then before I could say anything, or even think, Rosemarie picked up the cue and said: ‘Muffin, I was thinking the very same thing!’ But then, she said slowly, and rolled her eyes: ‘I know it couldn’t have been in that show in New York. Because wasn’t it true, dearest, that they didn’t have any of his oils?’ And then she shot me an artful glance, and let it slide off, and said: ‘I think it’s maybe because it has that—well, that je ne sais quoi—that universal quality that reminds me of all paintings.’ So help me God. Well, of course, that did it. I finally knew that something was really hideously wrong—I didn’t know what exactly, but these two people sure had blundered into the wrong shop—and I was about to open up and very delicately try to get the whole situation straightened out, when in Poppy bounced with about twenty-five balloons and the kids, and half a dozen village children shrieking and trailing after.”

  “Tell me,” I said, “how in the world did you get the terrible business over with? What did you say to them? What did you do?”

  “Well, it was tough, you know. I’ve always been twisted completely out of shape by such situations, even ones less serious than that. I don’t know what it is, because I don’t think I’m a real coward when you get right down to it. I guess I’d just rather see people have their illusions, rather than break them up and in the process make them seem even slightly stupid or silly. It’s a failing, I guess, but I’ve never really been able to conquer it. When I first went to art school in New York, I remember, the instructor thought my name was Mr. Applebaum, don’t ask me why, and for the longest kind of time I let him believe it—afraid to make him look like an ass—until it went on so long that it really became too late to tell him—then we both would have looked like idiots, you see—so I guess to this day if he ever remembers me he thinks of that nice Mr. Applebaum, from North Carolina.

  “Anyway—Jesus Christ, lead us not into temptation… . Well, just like McCabe up in Rome, you see, Mason had him a bottle of whiskey. Twelve-year-old Scotch it was, too. He poured me out a stiff belt and had a weak one for himself, and pretty soon the glow was on. I remember along about here he went over to the balcony again and stood there looking out. And he was silent for a while, sort of musing; with his nose sticking out over the rim of his glass, and then he came out with this whispered line in German. Kennst du das Land wo die Zitronen blüh’n? Then he turned and looked at me with this little wistful half-smile on his face and said: ‘At last I know. Honest to God, it’s crazy beyond belief. At last I know, Waldo, what Goethe meant when he had his vision of Eden.’ And I reckon I was getting a little dreamy, on four ounces of Chivas Regal too, but I was damned if I was going to let this guy outdo me in the poetry line, so not to be topped, I said that yes, I understood what he meant, it was an earthly paradise, all right, and that it oft reminded me of those lines in praise of Attica to my old friend Oedipus at Colonus—to wit, and I quoted: ‘Nor fail the sleepless founts whence the waters of Cephisus wander, but each day with stainless tide he moveth over the plains of the land’s swelling bosom, et cetera.’ What a real collusion of frauds! Except, as I say, I was still worried deep down how I was going to straighten out this confusion of identities. You have no idea how embarrassing it is to be called Waldo in all earnestness when your name is something else.

  “As usual, the booze took care of everything and worked the situation out in its own sweet way. Which of course is to say that it wasn’t more’n about fifteen minutes before I was plastered to the eyeballs. And now that I look back on it, I don’t suppose that Mason could ever forgive me for what I said and what I had done. He was being so phony and he was trying so hard, you see, only he had the wrong man. He was barking up the wrong tree, and when I finally got going there—spilling out all my bile and poison—I must have really hit him where he lived. Anyway, along about then Poppy took Rosemarie and the kids out for a stroll down into the piazza and Mason and I were alone. We started chatting again and I remember I had gotten up to pour me out another shot when at this point the damndest thing happened …”

  Cass fell silent, and closed his eyes briefly, as if trying to recapture the moment in its reality. “As soon as I caught sight of her I was struck that I could have seen her these two times and each time forgotten her, and then see her again and be touched all over by the same sort of million-fingered joy and delight at her beauty. What she had done, you see, was to give a timid little knock at the door while Mason and I were talking. We hadn’t heard the knock and she was just standing there, God knows how long, in this sort of frowzy, shabby croker-sack of a dress and her naked feet were planted firmly on the floor and as I came toward her she reached up and slapped at a fly and then she folded her hands together in front of her. It would be easy to romanticize that moment, you know, and tell you how her hair had the fragrance of camellias and her skin the hue and sheen of fairest marble, but you saw her—you know how she looked—and the fact of the matter is that she smelled like a cowshed and she had streaks of reddish dirt running up her bare legs. But no matter. She had brushed her brown hair till it shone with a silver luster and she didn’t crack a smile when I came over and looked into her grave and lovely face.

  “Funny thing, I had noticed Mason had gotten up and was giving her the once-over. It was really a hungry look he was giving her. It annoyed me somehow, boozy as I was. I motioned her out into the courtyard where we could talk. I said, ‘Are you the girl that Luigi and Signora Carotenuto sent?’ And she said yes, then I said, ‘What’s your name?’ and she said ‘Francesca, Francesca Ricci.’ My heart was pounding like a bleeding schoolboy’s, and I must have had an oafish look on my face, because I was suddenly aware that she was looking up at me with a puzzled expression and then I heard her say anxiously. ‘I knocked, signore, but you didn’t hear me, you didn’t hear.’ As if I suspected her of robbing the joint. Then, as much as I hated to, I came to the point instead of beating around the bush and prolonging the contact, so to speak. I said: ‘I’m sorry. Mi displace. But you will have to go away. There was a mistake made. I just can’t afford to hire anyone.’ And then this terrible look of sorrow came over her face, and she looked out into the street with her eyes full of the purest grief, and I thought she was going to blubber at any minute. I’ve often wondered whether a quality of pity wasn’t rooted in the heart of love just as much as beauty is, or desire; whether a part of love wasn’t just the perfectly human, uncondescending, magnanimous yearning to shelter in your arms someone else who is hurt or lost or needs comfort. Anyway, there she stood looking so raggedy and shabby and wretched—so poor,
there doesn’t have to be any other word—that I could have bit off my tongue for causing her such misery and disappointment. But I couldn’t very well back down; what I’d said was true, and that was the simple fact of the situation. I said: ‘I am very sorry, but I’ve had a recent disgrazia. You’ll just have to go away. It is something beyond my control. I know you need the money very much and I’m terribly sorry but you’ll just have to go away.’ Pretty soon she looked up at me again with her lips quivering and said: ‘I can cook and sew, signore. I can scrub clothes and clean the house.’ And then she said in a sort of quick anxious gasp in this horrible English she had picked up: ‘I can wash over the kildren!’ Then I said: ‘Che?’ And then I understood what she meant and I found myself laughing. But not much, because as I laughed her eyes got more and more lost and mournful and despairing, and finally she broke down and stuck her head into her hands and began to sob. And at this point I began to tramp up and down the courtyard muttering to myself and coughing behind my hand, all in an absolute sweat, you see—wanting her to stay if only for a few more minutes just so I could feast my eyes on her, but at the same time trying to figure out a way to get her out of there before I busted out bawling myself. Finally I went up to her and took her by the shoulders as gently as I could and said firmly: ‘You cannot stay. I have no money to pay you. Don’t you understand?’ She kept on sobbing, and it was all I could do to keep from taking her in my arms and soothing her and telling her that everything in the end would be all right, but I knew that everything in the end would not be all right so I just stood there and patted her on the shoulders and snuffled and groaned to myself. Then finally she looked up at me and here is what she said. It’s hard to describe her manner, because in the midst of her grief she was proposing something that a girl might find hard to do even in the midst of composure or good spirits or joy, but she looked up at me with these woeful red-rimmed eyes and said with the merest pathetic suggestion of some wan dispirited coquetry: ‘I know you are an artist, signore. I could pose for you well, and do anything—’ But I shushed her up and said, ‘Yes,’ because if she had to go as far as this anything then her distress was deeper even than the distress she had been weeping over, and I figured we’d be able to work out an answer somehow. So I said: ‘Yes.’ And then I said: ‘You won’t have to pose for me or anything. You just come and cook for us and wash over the kildren. I‘ll find a way to pay you.’ And in a moment she had vanished, and I felt an undertone of trouble myself, but with you might say a kind of warm gentle joy along with it, like a man who knows a tremendous secret… .”


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