Set this house on fire, p.53
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       Set This House on Fire, p.53

           William Styron

  Smooth and serpentine, the road wound far above the sea. The sun blazed down. On the heights above them wild roses bloomed, and water from springs poured forth out of the cliffsides, purling and splashing in whispery gush over the noise of the motor, the whistling wind. Far off, smoky Salerno sprawled against the shore, baking. He took another glug from the bottle, thinking the thought he had thought for many days: What I should do is really rob the son of a bitch. Let me be by my-saelf where the West commences! le sorelle sang, in wild throbbing treble. A power wire sagged above the road, cutting through the sisters with a blast of static. A seaside vacation village, smelling of caramel.

  “Where is this new road of yours?” Mason said, as the car eased to a halt. Hard by the seashore, where spangled umbrellas flowered on the rocky beach, there was a stone fountain, trickling rusty water. From this piazza, somnolent and sticky with morning, three asphalt roads branched off into the steep hills. “What’d you say, Mason? Wish I had a paper cup. ’Bout half of this here whiskey’s slopping down my neck." “What I said was—” He sensed the sharpness in Mason’s voice, was aware that Mason had turned to stare at him, leaning slightly forward, his left arm curled around the steering wheel. “What I said, Buster Brown, if you care to listen,” he said heavily, sarcastically, “is where is this new route to Naples you were telling me about. This short route, which presumably—if it’s shorter—we should have been using for the last dozen trips. If you can just remove that bottle from your lips long enough—” Two priests, one fat, the other rail-skinny, bounced past them on a sputtering Vespa, slanted black and billowing around the fountain, were gone. Neither Cass nor Mason spoke. For a moment motionless, they sweltered in the car, amid the smell of leather. Barely hearing Mason, Cass turned his eyes toward the sea; above Salerno, aloft, unbelievably high in space, there seemed to hover a mist, a churning rack of cloud, terrible and only faintly discerned, as of the smoke from remote cities sacked and aflame: he gave a stir, touched on the shoulder by an unseen, unknowable hand. He closed his eyes in sudden inward fright, trembling again on the marge of hallucination. Jesus Christ, not again today, not today when I got these things—Mason’s voice broke in: “Well, Buster Brown, do you navigate or do I?” Opening his eyes, Cass spoke. The mist, the stratospheric rack had vanished. “Ah, see that sign; says Gragnano? Take that one, Mason, dead ahead.” The car eased forward with an oily meshing of gears, barely perceptible; the sea slid out of sight behind them as they began the northward climb. On the outskirts of the village the road followed a stream bed where, shaded from morning heat by towering bay trees and willows, women with hiked-up skirts and brown bare legs scrubbed away at clothes. And now the way ascended, smoothly, through vineyards and lemon groves. Screaming, red-necked and with panicky flapping wings, a starved rooster rose up in front of them, escaping death by a feather. “So put it out of your mind, Cassius,” Mason said tersely. “The picture’s bought and paid for.”

  Gentili ascoltatori! the radio blared. Canzoni e melodie, un po’ di allegria di Lawrence Welkf Murder! Mason’s hand went out, fiddled with the dial, the voice complaining now about Italy, the dearth of jazz, the lack of this, of that—what? A short stretch through a tunnel in the rock, black as midnight, filled with the sound of rushing torrents, obliterated the voice. In an explosion of light they emerged from the cavern, Mason’s voice flat, insistent, haranguing: “—but you may not think so, Cassius old boy. I don’t mind missing a little chow once in a while—a can of beans here, a loaf of bread there, et cetera—you’re going to get that from servants anywhere. I think you’d agree, however, that there’s a slight difference between a little totin’ from the kitchen and lifting jewelry right out from under your nose. Those earrings were one of Rosemarie’s heirlooms. I’ve done my damndest, I tell you. I’ve eliminated Giorgio; I’ve eliminated those two wenches in the kitchen. Then who else is left? Much as I hate it, all the evidence points to—” Wrenching pain gripped Cass’ heart. The name Francesca on Mason’s lips, as always, spoken in that flat fatuous northeastern cum Hollywood voice larded over with some acquired lounge-lizard accent, faintly British, faintly phony—the name was like filth on his lips. Say one thing against her, do one thing out of line, friend, and I’ll pop you in the bleeding mouth. But Mason: close to the line as he often came, he had not stepped over it, yet; there was a wariness here, a caution, one area of Cass’ existence that Mason had hesitated—or feared—to violate, possibly dating from that day weeks and weeks before when Mason, in the very act of appropriating Francesca for a servant—after all, he could pay; Cass couldn’t—had said something crass and lewd, making plain in his broad wisecracking way not only his desires but his designs, and then had turned around blanched, wide-eyed, even apprehensive at the sound of Cass’ sober words, just those: Say one thing against her, do one thing out of line, friend, and I’ll pop you in the bleeding mouth. It had been a tense moment, but he had failed to drive the wedge in tight. For if there had been a single point during the past two months when Cass might have gained the advantage, at least come up to Mason’s eyelevel, made this plain: There is some shit I will not eat—that surely was the time. But instead the hard moment had become soft, blurred, blunted: Mason had said something querulous, vacantly apologetic—Arright, Cass, sorry, don’t be a hardnose about it, sorry—and he himself—in deathly outrageous panic lest his harsh words cause Mr. Big to withdraw the bambini’s fresh milk, plus Life Savers, bubble gum, frankfurters, bacon, liverwurst, booze (not the least)—had been soft, conciliatory, deplorable. What I mean, Mason, is don’t get any ideas, that’s all She’s just a kid, can’t you tell? And now Mason went on warily, cautiously: “She’s good around the place, works her little tail off. I remember when she was working for you and Poppy, how you told me what a terrific worker she was. And she is. That’s what’s so rough about it. I know how hard up she is. You’ve told me all about her trouble. My great heart bleeds, Cass. But I can’t think that it’s anyone but her. The evidence is in. The place, the time. Am I supposed to stand around and let her steal everything in the joint?”

  Drowsily, he heard himself say: “You’re barking up the wrong tree, Mason. Get you another goat, hear?” “What?” Mason said. “Goat,” he repeated. “I said get yourself another goat. You’re barking up the wrong tree.” Mason was silent. They were climbing now, steeply, along the rim of a gorge, a savage place where only scrub oak grew upon granite outcroppings strewn with gigantic boulders. But as they climbed, the air grew cooler, touched with a high mountain scent of laurel, fern, evergreen. Down through a space between the buttresses of the ridge they were ascending, the sea flashed by like blue enamel in bright sunlight, lakelike, a thousand feet below. Then the rocks and scrub oak returned—dusty abandoned country, conjuring hints of wolves, banditry, bleached and scattered bones. “This looks like the San Bernardino mountains,” said Mason. “Where’s that?” Cass said. “Out on the coast,” Mason replied, “sixty, seventy miles east of L.A. Parts of them wild as hell. Up around Lake Arrowhead, you know?” He fell silent for a moment. Then, “Well, all I can say, Cass,” he went on, “is that there’s going to come a reckoning with Francesca, wrong tree or not. I can take anything but sneak thievery. It’s the worst sort of thing, this sneaky Italian malady of theirs. I’d almost prefer the out-and-out gangsterism they brought to the U.S.A. Violence. You can deal with violence. Anything but this mean, behind-the-back petty larceny. As for Francesca, I know you have all sorts of sympathetic insights about her that I don’t"—for a moment, again, the voice was touched with sarcasm, then became solemn as before—"but she didn’t work very long for you. I don’t believe you ever saw the sly little bandicoot in action. I could pay for a trip back to New York just on the sugar she’s stolen.” He felt Mason’s eyes turn toward him. “Look, dear dollbaby, don’t take my word for it. Ask Rosemarie. You just don’t know—” The voice became a nag, a slurred complaint, a monotone barely distinct from the sizzling and strumming of tires upon the macadam, the obbligato
of fruity saxophones, muffled, halfdrowned in a steady nickering of static. “You just don’t know, you see, how—” A sound, half-giggle, half-moan, rose up softly in Cass’ throat. You just don’t know. I just don’t know what? he thought. Old buddy, I know more than you’ll ever find out. For if Francesca had finally been reckless enough this day to steal something of value—and he had no doubt that she had fleeced Mason (or Rosemarie) of earrings—what Mason still did not know was this: that for the rest—the sugar, the butter, the flour, the cans of soup which several times with a desolate whine Mason announced had disappeared from the pantry shelf—Cass had engineered their removal, encouraged Francesca in her depredation with all the smooth calculated craft of a Fagin, tipped her off as to Mason’s comings and goings, schooled her as to the amount of goods she might safely get away with, and in the end performed the feat, through Francesca, of depleting Mason’s supplies almost every evening in respectable proportion as he helped him augment them —through these insane, ceaseless trips with Mason to the commissary—almost every morning. He had cut a large hole into Mason’s cornucopia.

  “It is not chauvinism at all,” Mason was saying, by way of extension upon Francesca, thievery, Italians in general. The road had been torn up here; they were forced to drive slow, and billows of dust, raw umber, swept through the car. “It is not chauvinism in any way when I say that, Cass. But it’s a sickening thing when you consider the money the U.S.A. has squandered here, and find only that you’re regarded as some witless nincompoop of a fat rich uncle who’s meant not only not to be treated with ordinary decency, but robbed and swindled at every turn. Now you know my orientation is essentially liberal. But sometimes I think the greatest disaster that ever happened to America was that fountainhead, or fathead, of good will, General George Catlett Marshall. An old pal of mine in Rome just quit his job with E.C.A. or whatever it’s called, you’ll meet him; hell of a nice guy. Should be here today, in fact. If you want to get the low-down on the monstrous way our dough has been mishandled, just ask—” Cass belched, stuck a finger in the bottle’s mouth, protectively, against the dust. “Tell me something, Mason,” he said. “That movie star. That Alice what’s her-name. Does she put out?” He found himself giggling to himself disgustingly and without reason; rocking slightly, reeling, the sky above seemed to cloud over—though the sun still blazed down—touched with presentiments of dementia. Merciful God, let me hold out, let me endure this day. He chuckled, helplessly. “Down in Carolina we call stuff like that table pussy. Tell me, Mason, do you think old Alice would—" “They’re all narcissists,” Mason said shortly. “Make it only with themselves. No, I mean it, Cass, our whole foreign policy needs a complete overhauling. Everything political can be reduced to human terms, a microcosm, and if it’s not utterly plain that this petty thievery is not the reductio ad absurdum of what’s going on, literally, on a higher general level, then we’re all blinder than I’d thought. What we—” What we’re going to do is get that picture back, Mr. Big, he thought, then we’re going to cut out. He nipped at the bottle, delicately. Una conferenza sugli scienziati moderni! the radio squawked. Stamattina: il miracolo delta fisica nucleare! Madness! He felt his soft helpless interior chuckles diminish and die out. The car with a rubbery bumping regained the pavement and the air cleared, greasily shimmering with heat waves high above the sea. His mouth felt sour and dry, he began to sweat. Above, the sun, pitched close to its summit, rode like a heat-crazed Van Gogh flower, infernal, wild, on the verge of explosion. Che pazzia! he thought. Madness! Madness! All that he had done, that summer, all his thoughts, motions, dreams, desires had evaded madness by a hair, and this, at least, was madness, the maddest of all. Madness! The drug (Was it the heat? the whiskey? In a ghastly moment of fugue he forgot the name of the anointed medicine, gave a gasp which made Mason turn. Then he recalled it again, murmured the name aloud.), the pa-ra am-i-no-sal-i-cyl-ic acid, would be waiting at the PX pharmacy, of this he was sure. But to think that after all this—hovering next to the D.T.’s as he was, an amateur sawbones with nothing to support him save an intern’s manual, desperation, and the marvelous but uncertain drug—he could bring new life to that forsaken bag of bones in Tramonti: this, all this was madness… Christ, Mason, slow down! His head bobbed forward, eyes fixed upon the gorge which fell seaward short feet from the road (often during the first trips with Mason he had wondered at this frenzied desire for speed, considered it a species of reckless courage even, until that now dim and distant moment on the Autostrada when, casting a glance at Mason, watching that flushed yet tight-lipped face facing the road at ninety miles an hour, he realized it was not courage but if anything its vacant opposite—an empty ritualistic coupling with a machine, self-obsessed, craven, autoerotic, devoid of pleasure much less joy) and he said softly, aloud: “Mason, for pity’s sake, kindly slow the hell down, will you?”

  The car slowed, though it was not due to Cass’ plea, for here as they rounded a wide bend in the road there was a flock of sheep, fat-rumped and filthy, sturdily trotting, tended by a solitary boy. Mason hissed between his teeth, stopped, eased forward slowly. Sad bleats filled the air; the car moved ahead, parting the flock like shears. The boy called out, words high and indistinct. “In bocca al lupo!” Cass shouted back, waving the bottle; there was another bend, the sheep and boy were gone. “Strictly from Creepsville, sweet Alice Adair,” Mason was saying, “Nee Ruby Oppersdorf in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Couldn’t act her way out of a wet paper sack. She was a dumb little New York model when Sol Kirschorn got hold of her. I don’t know, she may have known a special bedtime trick or two—though frankly I doubt it—but anyway she got him by the balls and he married her. So now he’s cast her in everything he’s done. Such hebetude you could not possibly imagine. And yet she’s been cast as Joan of Arc and Madame Curie and Florence Nightingale and Mary Magdalene, for Jesus sake … she’s barely bright enough to come in out of the rain… . I told Alonzo that in this Beatrice Cenci role the only possible thing to do would be to concentrate on …” The voice became splintered, dim, remote. In a sort of shadowy grove the smell of hemlock bloomed around them; then, emerging from the wood into blinding sunlight, they mounted a long and level ridge: on one side was the sea again, on the other a field full of wildflowers, shimmering in the heat, smitten with light and summer. A shepherd’s hut lay in ruin, crazily blasted and aslant amid dockweed, yellow mustard, dandelion. A brisk wind blew toward the sea, cooling Cass’ brow. For a moment he closed his eyes, the flowers’ crushed scent and summer light and ruined hut commingling in one long fluid hot surge of remembrance and desire. Siete stato molto gentile con me, he thought. What a thing for her to say. You have been very kind to me. As if when I kissed her, and the kiss was over, and we were standing there in the field all body and groin and belly made one and wet mouths parted this was the only thing left to say. Which meant of course I’m a virgin and maybe we shouldn’t but you have been very nice to me. So—So maybe I should have took her then, with gentleness and anguish and love, right there in that field last evening when I felt her full young breasts heavy in my hands and the wild way she pressed against me and her breath hot against my cheek. … Siete stato molto gentile con me … Cass … Cahssio …

  “Crackerjack,” Mason was saying. The sunny meadow with its sweet conjuring mood of another field, another moment, had slipped behind them, yielding to a sloping ascent through the last stretch of woods before the summit, precipitous and awash with water from the roadside springs; beneath them, the tires whispered and splashed. With a shudder Cass raised the bottle to his lips and drank. “An absolutely crackerjack director, completely first-rate. Do you remember Mask of Love, back in the late thirties? And Harborside, with John Garfield? It was one of the first films ever done completely on location. That was Alonzo’s. But the trouble with Alonzo is that he’s neurotic. He’s got a persecution complex. And so when that Hollywood Communist investigation came up, even though he wasn’t remotely connected with anything to do with the Party—he was
too bright for that—he got disgusted and came to Italy and hasn’t been back to the States since, making a lot of wretched two-bit pictures in Rome. I think it’s only because Kirschorn has a guilt complex—a sort of fairweather liberal, you might say—that he signed Alonzo up for this monstrosity. Poor bastard, Alonzo hasn’t—” Cass tapped Mason’s shoulder. “Bear right here, Buster Brown, the right fork.” The car swerved to starboard, with a soft lurch and a squealing of tires. “Christ, Cass, stay on the ball, will you?” He barely heard the words, maddening, insistent as they were. I cannot say it is not sex yet if it were sex pure and simple I would have took her long ago. No there is this other thing. Maybe you could call it love, I do not know …

  Abruptly, the summit gained, all Italy rolled eastward, in haze, in blue, in a miracle of flux and change. Steaming with noon far below, the Vesuvian plain swept away toward the Apennines, a ghostly promenade of clouds dappling all with scudding immensities of shadow. A rain squall miles away was a black smudge against the horizon, the enormous plain itself a checkerboard of dark and light. Westward Vesuvius loomed, terrible, prodigious, drowsing, capped with haze. Beyond these heights—invisible—the gulf. Blinking, with odd and sudden panic, Cass turned his eyes away. Frattanto in America, said the meticulous radio voice, a Chicago, il celebre fisico italiano Enrico Fermi ha scoperto qualcosa… . Cass blinked again, shut his eyes, drank. The gulf, he thought, the gulf, the perishing deep. The volcano. Merciful bleeding God, why is it always that I—“So they can say what they will about Alonzo. You should see what Louella wrote about him, by the way. He might have been foolish, he might have had a bit too much of what is commonly known as integrity, and all that nonsense, but give him some film and a great actor like Burnsey to work with and he’ll turn out something first-rate. It might not be Eisenstein, or the early Ford, or Capra, or even Huston, yet there’s something individual—” Yatatayatata. His eyes still closed against mad Vesuvius, Cass thought: That voice. That bleeding outrageous voice. Cripps. Yatatayatata. Cripps. Why was that name now so sharply meaningful? Then suddenly, even as he addressed himself the question, with dark revulsion and even darker shame, he knew: recollecting dimly some sodden recent night, an assemblage of faces—the movie yahoos—leering and howling, Mason standing above him flushed and grinning and with his ringmaster’s look, and then himself, finally, impossibly murky with drink, rubbery-limbed, mesmerized, performing some nameless art even now unrecollectable save that it was clownish, horrible, and obscene. The limericks, the dreadful exhibition bit, the filthy lines—and what else? Merciful Christ, he thought, I think I must have took out my cock. But yes, Cripps. Had it not been Cripps, alone among that mob sympathetic, who with face at once enraged and compassionate had approached him sometime after, steadied him, guided him downstairs, splashed his brow with water, then gone off on a tirade about Mason the words of which meant only this: Courage, boy, I don’t know what he’s doing to you, or why, but I’m on your side? Let him try that again and he’ll answer to me… Good old Cripps, he thought, nice of the guy, I’ll have to thank him sometime. He opened his eyes. But for Christ’s sweet sake it’s not Mason who done it after all, it was me!

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