Set this house on fire, p.52
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       Set This House on Fire, p.52

           William Styron
 

  “‘How will I ever forgive myself, for all the things I’ve done?’ I said to him, hardly knowing what I was saying.

  “And then Mason said: ‘What have you done, Waldo? What’s the matter? Why, man, you’ve got it made!’

  “But I said: ‘The name is Kinsolving’—spelling it out—‘journeyman cartoonist from Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina.’

  “And then I got out of there. I went hunting for Francesca, thinking that I might be able to find her and buy her an ice cream or something. But then I realized I didn’t have a nickel to my name. So I staggered down the mountainside and sat and looked at the sea.”

  “Tell me, how did you ever get so involved—so chummy with him?” I asked Cass later.

  “Well, I’ll tell you a short little incident that I remember very clearly. One morning, you see, not long after that day I got up and started to go down to the cafe for my daily workout with Luigi and the wine bottle. I had just stepped out into the street there when down the cobblestones cruised Mason in that monstrous pneumatic barge of his, loaded down to the gun’ls with the damndest pile of boxes you ever saw. I mean cartons of Maxwell House and Campbell’s soups and catchup and Kleenex, this and that, anything you can name. He’d just come back from the PX in Naples, you see. He was really setting up housekeeping in a big way. He had enough there to outfit Admiral Byrd.

  “He drew to a halt and pitched me a big grin and got out and started unloading all his loot. I remember in the back he had a huge big boxful of cans—Crisco, I believe it was, or maybe Fluff o —anyway, it was some kind of fancy American lard, and he had enough of it to fry potatoes in till kingdom come—but the box was heavy and he was having a little bit of a time with it, so I shuffled over to help him out. Funny, this must have been about a week after he arrived. I hadn’t seen much of him up to then, but we’d waved to each other and smiled as we passed in the courtyard—both of us pretty sheepish, I guess, over the jackasses we’d made of ourselves that first day. As a matter of fact, once we’d even stopped there and mumbled a few apologies at each other—he for mistaking me for old ding-dong what’s-his-name from Rimini, and me of course for getting so drunk and outrageous and insulting. Mason must have been in a sort of pickle at the time, you know. I mean he was pretty well stuck there in Sambuco, for one thing. He was committed. Then at the same time, this blow job he’d given me about his work—I wasn’t the Polish boy, to be sure, but after all he had told me that my work was right up there with Matisse and Cezanne, and he couldn’t very well go back on his judgment without looking like a perfect cluck. Well, I didn’t think of all this at the time. Inside he must have been boiling—at himself and at me—but there was no way out, really. If he’d showed his resentment and, say, cut me dead, why he’d look all the more foolish and asinine, that’s all. But maybe, you know, he wasn’t boiling at all. Because maybe I had something else to offer him.

  “Anyway, as I say, at that point we were on decent enough terms, even though possibly somewhat distant, and I figured what the hell, I’d help him out with his Crisco. So we huffed and puffed the box into the courtyard, making sort of stiff little formal wisecracks and so on, and while we were doing this I said to myself, for God sake, I’d been pretty stinking and rude to this guy, he really seemed like a decent enough type; if he was going to be around Sambuco—sharing the same house, too—we might as well be friendly, so I just went on and helped him with the rest of his groceries. All that lard! It did seem maybe a little too much at the time, I guess, but who was I to begrudge him all his dough, and besides, he had boxes and boxes of books, too, which sort of excited me, and I remember thinking that maybe he’d loan me one or two. He said he’d picked them up at the dock in Naples, shipped over from New York. And there were a lot of other things that came along behind just then, in a truck he’d hired: that damn buffalo head, and these paintings—a Hans Hofmann, and a couple of de Koonings, and a huge black-assed Kline—and a Toast-master. And a bunch of fancy elephant guns all crated up and packed in cosmoline… .”

  Cass paused for a moment, scraping at the gray stubble on his chin. “I honestly don’t know what must have been bumping around in my subconscious. I knew I was stone-broke, and I knew that Poppy’s last ten thousand lire had dwindled down to almost nothing. I was really quite desperate, if you want to know the truth—way behind on the rent, and a wine-and-Strega bill down at the cafe half a mile long. I didn’t know what I was going to do. And here was this solid-gold young Santa Claus, this patron of the arts, moving in right on top of me. I don’t think it would be honest if I told you that I didn’t say to myself something like: Man, this is some gravy train. He sure doesn’t want all those goodies just for hisself. No. No, maybe nothing quite so crass and outright as that—after all, I still did have one or two scruples left. But when things like food, and milk for the kiddies—the lack of them, that is —is not just a vague possibility but an actual threat, and then along comes this guy who not only looks like he’s going to open up an A. and P. right on your doorstep but has brought along two or three cases of booze to boot, and he looks so generous and all, why your scruples really aren’t the same thing any longer. What was once hard pure diamonds turns into something soft on you. Anyway, this initial polite gesture of mine—helping him with that box of Crisco, that is—had suffered a rather tremendous change, and it wasn’t long before I was sweating there like a coolie. There wasn’t any need for this either, see; he’d gotten a couple of Wind-gasser’s boys to help him by then, but there I was anyway, hauling boxes around and toting these cases of Jack Daniel’s and Mumm’s champagne up the stairs, and by the time a half-hour had went by and we’d gotten everything securely tucked away upstairs, why Mason and I were jabbering away at each other like a couple of old college chums who were about to bunk together in the Phi Delt house. ‘Well, by Jesus, Cass, this is all damn white of you,’ he’d say. Or then, ‘You’ll have dinner with us tonight, won’t you, you and Poppy?’ Or then, Those paintings. ‘That de Kooning. I’d like you to take a look at it and tell me where to hang it. You know a lot more about such matters than I do.’ “ Cass paused again. “And what—” he said, then halted. “And what,” he resumed, “what was he after then? What was he trying to do, to get? Here I was, shaggy, down-at-the-heel, not his type at all. I had insulted him, furthermore; and it was because of me that he must have suffered a really miserable humiliation. I was not any chic figure in the firmament he wanted to dwell in; I was a bum and a drunken rascal and he must have known it. Yet here was Mason—generous, putting out for me, all sweet friendliness and hospitality. What was he after, do you suppose? Was it because he had no friends in this crazy hot exotic scary land, and needed a protection against his loneliness, and preferring to that a broken-down artist to no artist at all? Maybe.

  “Well, soon after that I made my mistake. Soon after that I did the thing that, once I did it, I was in up to my neck with Mason and there was no turning back. We were standing around there among the crates and boxes, chatting and talking and so on, and I heard Poppy call for me downstairs, and I figured it was time to go, because she’d be ready with lunch. So I said I’d be delighted to help him hang the painting, and then—well, even here there was probably more than a little guile behind my thoughts, thinking of that wad of lire Mason must pack around with him—then I asked if he and Rosemarie would like to join me in a game of poker. ‘Poppy will play,’ I said, ‘and this woman I know that runs the cafe, I’ve taught her how to play a decent hand. Plain old stud or draw, none of these ladies’ games—baseball or spit-in-the-ocean or anything like that.’ But Mason said that all he knew about was gin and bridge, and so I figured that the cards was one way I’d never get a penny off him. Well, I was about to leave then, when it happened. He leaned down into one of those liquor cases and he pulled out a bottle of whiskey. Then he said, ‘Here,’ holding the bottle out to me. ‘Here, why don’t you take this along?’ And he just stood there, holding it out, with this little sort of sideways grin on h
is face, and these elegant knuckles of his all white and bony with noblesse oblige. Very cool of him. Not a case of Rice Krisp-ies, but just what he knew I’d not be able to resist. And then he said: ‘Oh come on, Cass, take it along.’

  “It was not exactly a tip for my services, yet it was a tip, too. I’ll swear, I never saw anybody give something with less feeling, less charm. It was neither a gift nor a gratuity, and maybe if it had been either I wouldn’t have taken it. I don’t know what it was, but whatever it was—or maybe it was just his manner, holding it out there and that terribly well-meant and sincere yet lofty and slightly tired ‘Oh take it along,’ and Rosemarie had slunk in, in a pair of those toreador pants, so I felt that here was the lady of the manor watching the baron himself as he dealt with one of the serfs —whatever it was, it was bad. It was bad and I knew it, I knew it right down to the bottom of my guts, but I couldn’t resist that sauce. So I took it and I mumbled my humble thanks, and then I got out of there, flaming like an oven. If I had offered to pay for it, why even that might have taken a little of the curse off it. But I didn’t offer to pay for it—not because I didn’t have any money anyway, but because decency had left me, and good sense, and pride. I just took it, that’s all.

  “Then again I heard his voice, calling down at me, just before I got down to the courtyard. ‘say, Cass,’ he hollered, ‘you wouldn’t like to make the PX run with me next time, would you? Maybe pick up a few things for Poppy in the grocery line. Something for the kids?’ And I just hollered back: ‘sure, Mason, sure. That’d be just swell. Sure, I’d love to.’ Which was not a lie, but only the wretched truth… .

  “Funny thing,” he said after a long pause, “that last awful day —the day I met you on the road for the first time, remember?—that day I’d just finished what he always called a PX run. I lost count of the times I went over to Naples with him; it became a habit, like booze or dope, then at last I was tied to him, bound to him for reasons of pure survival, and not just my own, either, but of all those around me that I in turn had committed myself to save.

  “Mason,” he said slowly. “Uncle Sugar. I got so that with Mason I was as helpless as Romulus, sucking on the fat tit of a wolf. But this day here, this day he gave me that bottle, I had no idea how far in I would get with Mason, how deep and involved. Any more than I had the notion that in another way I’d rouse myself—God knows how I did it—and grasp a truth about the shabby and contorted life I’d been leading and make at least a stab at salvaging something out of the wreckage… .

  “I just took that bottle, that’s all.” Then, “Mason” he said after a long moment of silence. “I guess I’ve died a thousand deaths since I killed him. But never as long as I live will I forget standing down there in the courtyard, with that bottle like a big warm cow turd in my hand, and him hanging over the balustrade, so lean and so American, with the hungry look of a man who knew he could own you, if you’d only let him.”

  IX

  “Art is dead,” Mason was saying. “This is not a creative age. If you look at it that way—and really, Cass, I’m not trying to pull your leg about this—if you look at it that way, you won’t have any worries at all. As capable as you are—and I mean that—do you think the world has any use for your stuff, even if it were not representational, as it is? Put the whole thing out of your mind. A kind of Alexandrian, patristic criticism will fill the vacuum, and after that—nothing. The Muse is on her last legs—look around you, can’t you tell?—she is tottering toward the grave and by the year 2000 she’ll be as dead as the ostracoderm.” Above the slipstream noise of wind sliding past the Cadillac, Mason sneezed; removing handkerchief from gabardine slacks, he wiped his nose. “What’s that?” Cass heard himself say gummily, his tongue (though it was not yet noon) already bethickened. “What’s an oshtracoderm?” In the V of his crotch he nursed a pint bottle, gripped tightly in both hands against the car’s pneumatic rise and sway, and he hoisted it to his lips and drank. Gurgle and glug, a sweet taste, burning. “A fishlike animal,” Mason said. “It vanished in the late Devonian. Just a fossil now. I mean really, Cassius,” he went on persistently, “that being the case, how can you take all this so seriously?” He saw Mason’s foot go up against the brake pedal, felt momentum urge his own spine forward as the car paused: a red and white stop sign, the sea blue, glittering beyond, gay with boats. Atrani—slimy fish nets, bedecked with seaweed, drying in the sun. “Now which way do I go, on this new route of yours?” “Take a left.” The words thought, spoken simultaneously, and uttered upon the fag-end of a half-hour-long program of hiccups which now, after much breath-holding, much squinting, more concentration, mercifully ceased: That’s what you get for drinking without any breakfast, enough to make Leopold give up the ghost. “Take a left, Mason. What’s patristic?” There was no reply to this; the voice continued, lilting, high-pitched, avid, tireless: “So look at it in this light. Hypothesis: art is dead. Corollary: after art’s death, talent must be put to expedient purposes. Final deduction: you yourself, Cass Kinsolving, have done nothing wrong. I desired the expediency of your talent—namely, a certain picture, commissioned in the way pictures have been for centuries. You needing goods I had to offer (Cellini and Clement the Seventh, all right, I’ll agree, the parallel’s absurd like you say, but there’s a similarity in outline), you needing goods painted me a certain picture. I in turn made the appropriate recompense. So it isn’t art. Who cares? The deal is done. Could anything be simpler than that?”

  Blinding blue with July’s clear weather, the sky arched above the topless car; cool sea-wind fanned Cass’ face. The Cadillac clock, aslant on the glittering panel, registered eleven on the nose. In his mind, a dilatory quality seemed to inform all of Mason’s words: they made their imprint on his brain seconds after they were uttered, like an echo. On the pebbled beach below, brownlegged children played; past the beach there were white-hulled boats; past these, flashing sea birds; past all, a blazing eternity of blue: slowly, replacing the bottle in the cradle between his legs, Cass brought his eyes back to the clock, then the road ahead, hearing the echo—Could anything be simpler than that? “I still—” Cass said. Just that for an instant: “I still—” Even he himself could not hear those muttered words. He cleared his throat. “ I still want that picture back, Mason,” he said. The hiccups commenced again, pain lurched in his guts: Bleeding Christ, stoppit! “Still,” he repeated. “I still—huke!—still want that picture back, understand? I reckon I’m ashamed of it, that’s all.” Mason was silent, though was that the engine making that chiding clucking sound, or something that Mason was doing with his tongue? Like a dog who averts his eyes from his master’s face, Cass could not, this moment, bear to look at him; he gazed at the sea again and though he tried to repress it the painting rose up in his mind, horribly superimposed against the seascape’s blue: a nude and lovely young girl with parted mouth and the fairest of hair, supine, eyelids closed tight in passion’s grip, the gold and rose-petal flesh of her thighs entwined round the naked waist of a boy, somewhat Grecian of cast, black-haired, nostrils aflare, who made his sturdy entrance into her at the very vortex of the painting, assisted by a young, fair, yet most urgently contorted hand. Pure realism, it had been done in encaustic (with waxes Mason had bought for him in Naples); though sickeningly plastered during the three sessions it had taken him to complete the job, he had used no model save his imagination, and Mason had pronounced it a work of genius. The contrast! The light flesh and the dark! The perineal area—ah, said Mason, he had never seen a perineum so “moistly stimulated,” and as for the lovely youth—why, each delicate bluish vein seemed to throb with a gathering, pitiless increment of desire. (And that hand, that girl’s sweet young hand: it was absolutely frantic.) And for all this: seventy thousand lire—just enough to pay back rent—three bottles of French brandy, three vials containing ten cc. each of streptomycin sulfate (Squibb), and, now, the burden of an all but unbearable shame. “No really, Mason,” he heard himself mutter, “I want that paintin
g back. I’ll pay you for it, see?” But Mason, unhearing—unlistening?—had switched on the radio. E adesso le sorelle Andrews nella canzone ‘Dawn fanzmi in.’ … Christ! He flinched, grabbing the bottle as Mason swerved past a donkey cart loaded with bags of meal, gained the straightaway, gunned forward, leaving behind meal-motes floating in air, a stooped old man with skin like wrinkled mahogany, eyes rolling in blank belated terror. Give me land lotsa land under starry skies… . The bleeding Andrew sisters, a Red Cross canteen in Wellington, New Zealand, ten thousand years ago, and that song, a girl… . Gorblimey, Yank, you do cut a fawncy caper… . But the memory faded as Mason said now: “Really, why do you want it back so bad, dollbaby? If you’d just give me one honestly logical reason I’d—” But it was his turn to remain silent, thinking: Because of the bleeding abyss. Because I feel how close I am now. Because even in futility’s supremest futility I cannot let my last and only creation be a perineum, a moist membrane and a bunch of pulsing veins, in short, a screw. … He held his breath, the hiccups stopped. I got to watch out, he thought.

 

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