Set this house on fire, p.54
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       Set This House on Fire, p.54

           William Styron
 

  He looked down, saw that his legs were trembling out of control. “I’m gonna cut out, Mason,” he said, turning to stare at the lovely profile, cool, swank, sweatless, scrupulous, a silk scarf beneath, chaste polka dots. “I finally decided I’ve just about had Sambuco. So soon’s I clean up this little job back in Tramonti I’m gonna cut out.” The booze had made him bold; it was out before he had time to think: “Now if you could just see your way clear to advancing me say about hundred and fifty thousand lire I could get me and the family back to Paris. See, in France I could get some kind of a job, and pay you back, and besides—” “How much do you owe me already?” (The voice peremptory but, withal, not unkind.) “Oh I don’t know, Mason. I got it all down some place. Somewhere around two hundred thousand. Except that I—” Mason spoke again, affable still, yet in tones inhibitory if not adamant: “Don’t be silly, Cassius. A hundred and fifty thousand couldn’t get you as far as Amalfi. Quit worrying about the money, will you? Stick around, we’ll have us a circus.” He turned, with a sort of wink, faintly apologetic, adding: “I mean a ball, dollbaby, not what you think I mean. A ball. Picnics in Positano. Capri. Just a good time, that’s all.” (In spite of nausea, weariness, fidgeting legs, Cass began to giggle again, without a sound: Merciful Christ, a circus. Thinking of that delicious crise, somewhere in the depths of June, when Mason, propositioning Cass at a fuzzy vulnerable moment with the idea of a circus, coyly divulged the information that this would engage the four of them—Mason, titanic broad-assed Rosemarie, himself and, implausibly, insanely, Poppy—in some co-operative bedroom rumpus; more tickled and bemused than horrified by the vision of his saintly little Irish consort sporting with Rosemarie, all naked as herring, he had laughed so uproariously that Mason gave up the venture straightaway, though sulking.) His giggling ceased, died out as suddenly as it had come. So the guy really is going to hold out on me. Which is all the more reason I guess for shaking him down on the sly. He glanced at Mason again, sideways, wordlessly addressing him: If you’d just come on out and admit you was basically a plain old sodomist and wanted to get into my fly you’d be a lot more attractive person, Buster Brown.

  “So cut the crap, Cassius. Quit this silly talk about leaving. Look, I know it’s a rather banal observation, but the grass always looks greener on—” At horrifying speed now they moved northwest along the spine of the ridge, tires humming, above the enormous plain. Focusing his eyes upon Mason’s knee, Cass again opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, belched. And for a long moment, almost as if in delicate, easily shatterable opposition to the volcano which he could not bear to allow himself to see, he thought of the crazy mess of incidents and misadventures which had brought him to this day, this ride, this horror and this hope: the vision of Michele on that doomed, suffocating afternoon when first he’d seen him (the day itself had been touched with premonitions of ruin, somehow, for far off down the coast a highway crew was blasting and gusty tremulant explosions all too reminiscent of warfare and death accompanied them, Cass and Francesca, as they walked back into the valley and as she told him of her father’s consumption—tisi, la morte bianca—which was, Dio sa, bad enough in itself to have, yet surely He must have had special vengeance in mind to compound this disease with such a wicked accident: the time between the moment she heard his helpless frantic cry and the instant he struck the ground could scarcely have been ten seconds, less than that, yet seemed a long eternity—for the cowshed roof, wet and slanting, offered no grip at all to his clutching hands, so that when he stumbled and fell he lay there for a moment spread-eagled against the peak and for that instant she thought he was safe until very slowly he began to slide feet first and belly down along the glassy incline, uttering not a sound and making futile grasping motions with his hands, slipping still, skidding faster and faster to the eaves, where, a limp figure catapulted into empty space, he soared outward, and down, his leg snapping like a piece of kindling beneath him as he struck the earth), that stifling afternoon when, with Francesca at his side, gazing down for the first time at Michele, at the great blade of his nose and his sunken cheeks so pale and cruelly lined, the mouth like a gash parting in a whisper of a smile, revealing jagged teeth and a mottled diseased patch of bright red gums—at that smile, was it not then that he had come to his own awakening? Or was it later, sometime after those sick fevered eyes, gazing up from the hammock in the shade, had rested upon Cass gently and questioningly and not without wonder, and the voice in a croak had said: “An American. You must be very rich”? There had been no reproach in this wan and worn-out remark, no indignation, no envy; it had been merely the utterance of one to whom an American and wealth were quite naturally and synonymously one, as green is to grass, or light is to sun, and Cass, who had heard these words spoken before though never by one so unimaginably far gone in misery and desolation, had felt clamminess and sickness creep over him like moist hands. The man, he saw, was not too much older than himself. Perhaps his awakening had begun then. For, “Babbo!” said Francesca then, sensing his embarrassment. “What a thing to say!” And runnels of sweat had coursed down Michele’s cheeks, while Francesca moved to his side, mopping his face with a rag, crooning and clucking soft words of reproof. “For shame” she had said, “what a thing to say, Babbo!” Then carefully she had ministered to her father, stroking his brow and rearranging the folds of his threadbare denim shirt, smoothing back the locks of his black sweat-drenched hair. So that with pain and distress in his heart and a hungry indwelling tenderness he had never known quite so achingly, he had watched her as she attended to the stricken man, and all her beauty seemed enhanced and brightened by this desperate, gentle devotion. An angel, by God, he had thought, an angel—And then, embarrassed, he had turned away, and stepped into the doorway of the hut. Here in the hushed light his eyes had barely made out the dirt floor and a single poor table and, beyond, empty, the cow stall with its meager bed of straw, and his nostrils were suddenly filled with a warmly sour and corrupt odor that bore him swiftly into some mysterious, nameless, and for the moment irretrievable portion of his own past, thinking: Lord God, I know it as well as my own name. And then he had inhaled deeply, almost relishing the sour and repellent smell, then almost choking on it as he filled his lungs with the thick putrescent air, in a hungry effort to dislodge from memory that moment in years forgotten when he had smelled this evil smell before, when suddenly he knew, and thought: It is niggers. The same thing, by God. It is the smell of a black sharecropper’s cabin in Sussex County, Virginia. It is the bleeding stink of wretchedness. And then, exhaling, he had stepped back puzzled and distressed into the sunlight, and Francesca raggedy and lovely bending down over Michele, then standing up. A great collapsed grin had spread over Michele’s face, and with an aimless gesture in the air of one limp and bony hand he scattered a cluster of green hovering flies. For a moment they were all silent. A thunderous detonation sounded once more from the sea, borne on a hot blast of air which shuddered in the pine trees around them, welling up thudding through the valley distances and died finally with a rumble like that of colliding kegs and barrels diminishing in murmurous echo against the hills. “It is a festa?” Michele said. The sunken grin creased his face again, and for no reason at all an awful chuckle gurgled up in his mouth, terminating not in the sound of laughter but in one long agonized spasm of coughing which set his arms, shoulders, and spindly neck to jerking like those of a puppet on wires, so loud and prolonged, this fit, that it seemed not simply the effort of one frail body to free itself of stifling congestion but a kind of explosive, rowdy anthem to disease itself—a racking celebration of infirmity—and it was at that instant that Cass, belatedly and desperately, at last awakened, understood that the man was dying. And had thought, turning, his eyes closed tight against the sun: I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to do something and do it quick. And remembered the women carrying fagots. And thought again: And I have been poor, too. But never anything like this. Never.

  “Why is he not in a hos
pital?” he had asked furiously. “Why is he lying here like this?” Ghita, the mother and wife, had come then—wild-haired, consumptive herself, feverish, wobbling ever near hysteria—trailed by an evil old crone from the hills, carrying amulets, potions, charms. “Ask Caltroni!” Ghita had screeched. “Ask the doctor! He says there is no use! What hospital! Why put a man in a hospital when it is no use! And when there is no money to pay!” (All this in front of the squalling children, in front of Michele, sunk in his hammock dreaming his gentle smile, while cackling Maddalena, the rustic thaumaturge, hovered over, gat-toothed and with swelling blue varicose veins, waving the amulet like a censer.) “He is going to die anyway!” she had yelled. “Ask the doctor! You’ll see!” And, some days later, he had indeed gone to see the doctor, climbing the dark fish-smelling stairs to an office aerie where, munching on a piece of stringy goat cheese, pompous and vain, evasive, a wop Sydney Greenstreet paradoxically radiating a quality of ignorance and ineptitude so overpowering that it was like a kind of brownish aureole around him, Caltroni held forth, amid a magpie’s nest of rusty probes and forceps and speculums superannuated at the time of Lord Lister. “Perchè?” he had said, and spread pudgy nicotine-brown fingers. “Non c’è speranza. È assolutamente inutile” And had paused, savoring the pronouncement. “It is what is known as generalized consumption. There is not a hope in the world.” And Cass, feeling the blood knocking outrageously at his temples (by then his need to do something had become like a panic, a fierce drive up ward and outward from his self that had begun to cut like flame through the boozy dreamland, the nit-picking, the inertia, the navel-gazing), said loudly and impatiently: “What do you mean there is not a hope in the world? I’m no doctor but I know better than that! I read the papers! There are drugs for this now!” Whereupon Caltroni, stupidity like ooze around his pink lips, had closed his eyes behind his pince-nez, pressed his fingers together, a rich wise gesture, absurdly vain, sacerdotal: “Vero. I do believe there is a drug. It is somewhat like penicillin. The name escapes me.” And opened his eyes. “It is an American product, I believe. But it is in exceedingly short supply in Italy. I myself have never had the opportunity to use it, although in Rome—” He paused. “In any case it could do no good with the peasant”—speaking the patronizing word, campagnuolo, delicately, as if it were a germ—“he is far gone, and besides he could never be in any position to pay—” But Cass had risen, stalked to the door, shouting over his shoulder: “Che schifo! Merda! I wouldn’t let you perform an abortion on my cat!” And felt instant shame, aware even as he slammed the flimsy door shut that the ignorant doctor’s sin was only the venial one of being born in the south of Italy, where, soggy and defeated, even his vanity a sham, he would be reconciled in despair until the end of his days to pricking boils and salving the teats of mangy cows and prescribing quack pills and ointments to people who repaid him—because that is all they had—in goat cheese.

  But still Michele continued to get worse: he had no strength to lift himself from the hammock, he had a constant headache, he began to complain of pain in his leg, his attacks of coughing were monstrous to see and hear. Through Cass’ tutelage in plundering Mason’s storeroom (once he took off for a week in Capri with Rosemarie, which made for a field day among the groceries), Francesca saw to it that Michele was fed, and Ghita and the children too, but the sick man’s appetite was poor. Every day Cass visited him; they talked endlessly of America, land of lost content, of gold. For Michele’s sake, he embroidered long lies, baroquely colored. Once, describing in much detail, of all places, Providence, Rhode Island, which Michele, for reasons known only to himself, longed to see, Cass felt sudden pain and longing himself, and annoyance at the demeaning nostalgia, and, breaking off in mid-sentence, wondering at the feeling, realized simply that whatever else he might say against his native land, there would not be this particular gross wrong and insult to mortal flesh. And he looked down at Michele, consumed by a tenderness that he could not understand; seeing the man’s eyes closed in sleep, he thought for an agonizing moment that he was dead. Then shortly after this, sometime around the middle of June, an odd thing occurred which Cass considered a good omen: one day there had come to the Bella Vista a young doctor from Omaha, Nebraska, and his wife, obviously honeymooners—the doctor a short, intense type with a reddish butch crew-cut and square red mustache like matched hairbrushes, his bride gangling and plain, possessing an earnest athletic look and the flatly contoured powerful legs of a miler. The couple was obviously distraught to begin with; they stayed long enough to play one or two desultory sets of tennis on the Bella Vista’s single dusty court, and then (doubtless it was fear of heights, Windgasser observed unhappily, that morbid phobia which had caused even more extroverted-looking tourists than the doctor and his wife to flee the towering crag of Sambuco) had skedaddled sweatily away—possibly all the way back to flat Omaha—frantically chartering a private car to take them to Naples and in their haste leaving behind them, among other things, their tennis rackets, a set of barbells, a douche bag, and several books. It was one of these books—The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, subtitled: A Source of Ready Reference for the Physician—that Cass, having come to beg from Windgasser another extension on the rent, saw on the hotel desk that very evening, and then tucked into his pocket with a secret glow of discovery. And it was through the manual that he finally set up shop as an M.D.

  GENERALIZED HEMATOGENOUS TUBERCULOSIS. Subacute Form: The onset of this form of the disease is …insidious. Fatigue, loss of weight, malaise, and fever develop over several weeks. The infection is less overwhelming than in the acute form and fewer lesions are established in the various organs. A greater variety of manifestations develop, however, because the patient lives longer, allowing for the development of local lesions. Lymphadenopathy is more prominent, splenomegaly more frequently seen, and progressive ulcerative pulmonary tuberculosis often develops subsequent to miliary “seeding.” Symptoms and signs of genitourinary tuberculosis, bone and joint tuberculosis, or skin tuberculosis frequently develop during the illness. A ma-jority of the patients die within three to six months but some live for many years with partially healed lesions in the organ systems involved. He committed such passages to memory, finding in this one, or at least in its final line, almost as much to hope for as to cause him despair. For if it was true that some did live for many years, was there not an outside chance that Michele might join the saved? In the Bella Vista library, between Middlemarch and East Lynne, he discovered an enormous rat-chewed dictionary and looked up “splenomegaly"; rushing down to Tramonti that very evening he prodded gently at Michele’s spleen, found that it was swollen, outsized, like a rubber tire, and figured that at least Caltroni’s diagnosis had been correct. Streptomycin or di-hydrostreptomycin is of considerable value in the treatment of the acute and subacute forms of the disease. In addition to specific antibiotic therapy, active supportive treatment is indicated for the patient with severe acute miliary tuberculosis. He may be so ill as to require I.V. hydration and alimentation and vitamin supplements. Blood transfusions may be helpful. And he thought: Shit a brick, how am I going to give him any blood? But that problem he would grapple with when he came to it. The drugs were the immediate, the pressing thing and by dawn of the next day—his mind aswarm with monstrous words like sarcoidosis, histoplasmosis, coccidioidomycosis, but with a rage to cure flaming in his breast—he knew at least where he could get his hands on some streptomycin. That morning he had presented himself early at Mason’s door, for once neatly attired, as befits an up-and-coming doctor of medicine.

  And Mason had held out on him. No, he had not really held out on him at last; he had given in, languidly accoutered himself in his spotless flannels, and with Cass had tooled over to the PX pharmacy, where, making use of his elaborate connections, he had obtained the thirty cc. of streptomycin—plus two hypodermic syringes, and ten ampoules of morphine, too, to ease the pain in Michele’s leg: that was part of the bargain. For bargain it was, a deal
—there was no largesse involved—and for this alone, almost, Cass would be unable to forgive him. He had made his plea, straight and simple ( “sMason, see, it’s Francesca’s father, he’s in awful shape and what he needs, you understand, is this new wonder drug that I’d figured you might be able to get for me …” And so on), and had elicited only an Olympian shrug and this rejoinder: “Crap, Cass, now please don’t consider me the Flintheart of all time but you know as well as I do that if each individual American went around nursing every sick distressed Italian that came along he’d go broke in about a week even if he had twenty million dollars.” And swiveled in the bright morning sunlight, immaculate, swank, streamlined, and scrutable in his flannels, and poured two cups of coffee from the spout of a gleaming electric Koffee King. “I’m a bastard, I know,” he said, self-mocking, “but face it, can’t you? If one must accept the notion of a welfare state with all of its committed millions, and European Recovery or whatever it’s called, then one must realize that one has already done his bit. Really, Cassius, I mean this. If I told you how much Federal income tax I paid last year you’d call me a liar. I mean, dollbaby, I’ve already kicked in with a couple of gallons of antibiotics.” Yet a bargain was finally struck after several hours’ conversation during which, for the first time, Mason broached his opinions upon the value of erotica, and in fact showed Cass a stack of his juiciest lithographs. “It might just be the thing, dollbaby,” Mason had said, “to get you around that psychic block of yours.” In his morning haze, the prospect was deceptively titillating. And later he regretted it. But the bargain was struck. For one filthy picture, to be skillfully executed: rent money, brandy, streptomycin. They took off for Naples at noon. And late that same evening, just before he started to fulfill his part of the bargain and began painting the atrocious picture in encaustic, meticulously applied, he had at least the satisfaction of seeing a full gram of the hard-won stuff flow from his own syringe into Michele’s veins. All he lacked was a diploma.

 
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