Set this house on fire, p.55
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       Set This House on Fire, p.55

           William Styron
 

  Yet it became a month of disconnected days, verging, it seemed, ever closer to some shadowland frontier separating reason from madness. He drank, he went without sleep; at Michele’s side at least six times daily and often more, he lost count of the hot treks he made into the valley and back—compelled to do so because hysteric Ghita could not be trusted to make the proper injections, even if in a valley which had never known a cake of ice, much less a refrigerator, there had been a place to store the drug (once he struggled into the valley with a huge block of ice, which quickly melted, and he saw that this scheme would be more arduous than a careful program of hikes)—and established a kind of hallucinated rhythmical schedule in which a certain familiar cypress that he passed, or the shallow place where he leapfrogged across a brook, or a boulder that he mounted to short-cut up a slope were only way stations, arrived at without the variation of a minute, upon the route toward that final destination where, pooped and logy with wine or Mason’s booze, he would rest for a while in the fly-swarming heat and talk to Michele (America! America! What lies he told! What paeans, what eulogies he bestowed upon the nation!) and then with great care insert the boiled needle in the rubber stopper of the vial, extract a gram of the rose-colored fluid and slowly pump it into a vein of Michele’s wasted, unflinching arm. Yet Michele, perhaps more slowly than before, but still quite visibly and plainly, grew worse, wasting away like the thin attenuated white stalk of some plant deprived of water and the sun. He saw Michele wither away, and blind outrage seized him as he hiked back up through the valley, storming and raving at his own inadequacy, at Italy, at Mason (thinking: Bleeding God, he could get Michele fixed up just out of his petty cash …), at that black, baleful and depraved Deity who seemed coolly minded to annihilate His creatures not in spite of but almost because of the fact that they had learned to heal their bodies, if not their souls… .

  “Questi sono i soli esemplari che si conoscano” said the finicky scientific radio voice, “a rigor di termini—” Mason had fallen silent, and now, as the Cadillac moved swiftly along the spine of the great ridge, a single fleecy cloud eclipsed the sun, bringing a sudden, momentary chill. Feeling the sweat evaporate on his brow, a cool prickle up his back, Cass raised the bottle to his lips and drank. Below in the valley the shadow of the cloud passed westward at tremendous speed, the ragged gray silhouette of some prehistoric bird engulfing fields, farmhouses, trees; behind its trailing edge the sunlight moved voraciously, pursuing the ghost. Slowly the cloud itself passed from the face of the sun, bringing heat to the car once more, and dazzling light. “Say, Mason,” Cass heard himself say with effort, “say, old buddy, tell me something. Are you sure they’ve got that stuff?” “What stuff, Cassius?” he said amiably. “You know, the P.A.S. Last time, I mean Tuesday, are you sure they said you could get it today?” (Merck again, the viscous terminology committed to his memory as unshakably as a nursery rhyme: Para-aminosalicylic acid is indicated chiefly as an adjuvant to streptomycin or dihydro-streptomycin therapy, since it delays the emergence of organismal resistance to these drugs. It may be used alone, however, when streptomycin and dihydrostreptomycin are contraindicated or have proved ineffective, since it possesses antituberculous activ-ity itself. The last bleeding hope and chance. And how, after watching Michele wither and fail for the last two weeks, it had taken him so long to root this precious information from the manual he would never know; no matter, stumbling upon the passage by sheerest chance as he half-drowsed by Michele’s hammock only three days before, he knew he must get his hands on this stuff whether it prove the ultimate miracle or only one last desperate and futile gesture.) “You sure they said you could get it today?” he repeated. “Sure I’m sure,” Mason said. “Put it out of your mind, dollbaby.” “I can’t—” Cass began, sweating. “I mean, Mason, like all the rest I won’t be able to pay you back right away. I mean, if you can just put it on the tab with all the rest of —” But remarkably, impossibly now—could it really be true?—Mason was saying: “Come on now, Cass, don’t be absurd. I’ll take care of it, call it a gift if you want to. For one thing I priced the stuff Tuesday. It’s cheap. It’s synthesized out of coal tar like aspirin, the pharmacist told me, and they have P.A.S. up the ass. But even”—Cass was gazing at him intently; was that a gentle smile on his face, a smile of benevolence even, or only something else, more complicated and devious, he was doing with his lips?—“even if it were really precious, Cassius, I’d want you to have it—for nothing.” And for an instant he paused, rubbing one lens of his sun glasses with a Kleenex, magnanimously smiling. “I mean, God knows, it’s the very least I can do. She’s a virulent little sneak thief—I’ll argue that with you right down the line—but if the old man is as bad off as you say it’s the least I can do to chip in a little bit myself and try to put him back on his feet. After all, it’s not his fault that she’s—well, you know what. So forget about it, Cass, this one’s on me. O.K.?” He didn’t answer. Drowsing now, peering at the valley through half-closed eyes, he felt his jaw drop, the muscles of his limbs growing limp with exhaustion as he thought: I don’t want any of your bleeding charity. Not for Michele’s sake, anyway. I’ll pay you back, Buster Brown. I’ll pay you back for everything.

  Vesuvius, looming nearer beneath a blue arch of sky, seemed horribly to swerve and lumber, lurching in ponderous independent motion as the Cadillac squealed, breasted a curve, and began the descent toward Naples and the plain. At this point, what all day he had been so fearfully dreading, happened. Merciful sweet Christ, he thought in terror. Again. Again I’m going to hallucinate; and indeed for a moment—as his hand clutched the door handle not for support, but out of his own quick involuntary arrested impulse to hurl himself to the road—he saw superimposed against the volcano’s blue flank the outlines of a hairy tarantula, disturbingly red and with clumsy groping arms, the whole writhing obscenity as vast as the Colosseum: in seconds, fading into the landscape, it was gone. He shut his eyes tightly, heart thumping, thinking: Think of nothing, think of light. Slowly his hand relaxed its grip on the door, fell back into his lap. So I must really have the D.T.’s, he whispered to himself. And now in the darkness the radio voice had fallen silent, but Mason’s rattled on, garrulous, persevering, unfatigued: “No, getting back, Cass —in an age of cultural collapse, of artistic decline, people still must find some valid outlet for the emotional and psychic dynamism that’s locked up in the human corpus. I remember that time we drove to Paestum I was trying to convince you of this, but I think you’ll buy the theory finally. Remember what I was telling you about Nietzsche’s concept of the Apollonian and the Diony-sian—a marvel of romantic yet totally acceptable logic, really. … So now with art in decadent stasis society must join the Dionysian upswing toward some spiritual plateau that will allow a totally free operation of all the senses… . What you don’t seem to realize, Cassius, is how basically moral and even religious the orgiastic principle is … not only because in a secondary way, flouting bourgeois convention, that is, it is a form of living dangerously—again Nietzsche … but it is the yea-saying of the flesh … the Priapean rites, you know … time-honored … your friends the venerable Greeks … neo-Laurentian … age-old ritual … phallic thrust … like jazz … pro vita not contra, dollbaby … it’s what the hipster and the Negro know instinctively … bitch-goddess … a kind of divine sphincter … and the penultimate orgasm …”

  Horseshit, he thought drowsily, triple bleeding horseshit. Impotent, now soft and faint, the voice lulled him for a spell and then was lost to hearing, for as he dozed a wild and agonizing fantasia possessed his brain: Poppy spoke to him, surrounded as ever by her children. “Cass,” she said sadly, “I know,” and moved away, and now he was once again with Francesca. In some sun-drenched field strewn with the cup-shapes of anemones, white, purple, and rose, they strolled together and the clear bright day was filled with the sound of her soft chatter. “Mia madre andava in chiesa ogni mattina, ma adesso mio padre. …” And she fell quiet, sadly, and now together th
ey were crossing a stream, and she raised the hem of her skirt to expose her soft sweet thighs. Was this indeed something beyond a dream? For on the bank beside her, on a grassy mound where willows cast a constant cool shade, he was naked as, at last, was she, and he held her warm body tightly in his arm. “Carissima,” he was whispering and he was pressing long kisses on her mouth—and he felt her hands, too, loving and soft on his chest—and in her hair. Gently he touched the nipples of her heavy young breasts, even more gently that tender warm wet inner place which brought the word “Amore!” to her lips like the cry from a madrigal … yet now there was a sound in his ears, a rumbling, as of the confluence of traffic from a hundred drumming streets, and the meadow, the anemones, the willows—his blessed Francesca—all were gone. A smell of putrefaction swarmed through his brain, a sweet-sour outrageous stench of dissolution, of death. On some wet black shore, foul with the blackness of death’s gulf, he was searching for an answer and a key. In words whose meaning he did not know he called out through the gloom, and the echoed sound came back to him as if spoken in an outlandish tongue. Somewhere, he knew, there was light but like a shifting phantom it eluded him; voiceless, he strove to give voice to the cry which now, too late, awakening, he knew. “Rise up, Michele, rise up and walk!” he roared. And for the briefest space of time, between dark and light, he thought he saw the man, healed now, cured, staunch and upright, striding toward him. O rise up Mi-chele, my brother, rise!

  “Sharon’s a Johnny Ray fan, she can’t stand Frankie Laine,” an American voice chirruped somewhere above him. He awoke slowly, with a dull headache, everywhere drenched in sweat. He was racked with lingering sorrow, lingering desire. Pulling himself to a sitting position from the place where he had lain sprawled across the seat, he found himself alone in the car, now motionless, absorbing the full blast of the sun in the familiar parking lot. Two chattering bobbysoxers rosy with acne, in babushkas and blue jeans, both of them licking on popsicles, strolled past discussing culture: “Sharon can’t stand anybody but Johnny.” He was stupefied with drink and the remnants of the all too brief nap; he looked for Mason, saw no one now save a blond soldier with an incredibly square head who strode whistling toward the PX. Sudden panic seized him. Maybe he’s not going to get the P.A.S. he thought. Maybe for some reason he’s going to get all his booze and his groceries and he’s not going to get that P.A.S. after all. The bugger just might be going to hold out on me. Half-stumbling down on the asphalt as he hooked his foot beneath the seat, he lurched from the car and weaved toward the squat, barrack-like PX, muttering to himself, sweating like a Percheron, and belatedly aware (the flushed, tight-lipped look, the suddenly averted eyes of some Army wife told him this) that he was dis- playing through his trousers a large erection. He paused and composed himself and then proceeded toward the glass door, where, pushing through along with a crowd of sport-shirted countrymen, he was met by a frigid blast of conditioned air and a gumchewing master sergeant with mean blue eyes and a large scuttleshaped chin. “Where’s your pass, buddy?” he said, gazing up from his deck. “I’m looking for a friend,” Cass said. “You gotta have a pass.” “I don’t have a pass,” Cass began to explain, “my friend has a pass and I usually—” “Look, soljer,” said the sergeant, laying aside a copy of Action Comics and gazing at him without sympathy, “I don’t make the rules. Uncle Sambo makes the rules. To get into this Post Exchange you’ve gotta have a pass. Signed by the CO. and endorsed by the adjutant. How long you been here? What outfit you in? Guard Company? H. & S.?” Cass felt sounds like sobs welling up in his chest, a red mist of fury began to glaze his eyes. “And another thing, buddy, let me give you a tip,” the sergeant went on, “if I was you when I got into civilian clothes I’d be a little bit more careful about my appearance. Especially when you’re taking a load on. You look like something the cat dragged in, soljer. I’d just go somewhere and sleep it off if I was you.” For a long moment, incredulous and confused, stirring with insult, outrage, Cass stood looking at the sergeant, mouth agape; through the icebox air, muted, sweet, floated a syrupy confection of recorded dance music, saxophones, clarinets, and whining strings; from some other source, competing with the goo, a crooner softly blubbered, adding a mawkish dissonance. He smelled a drug-store smell, as of ice cream, milk, and spilled Coca-Cola. One more word out of him, he was thinking slowly, dimly, deliberately, and I’ll flatten his bleeding nose. And he was not precisely sure, but in his daze and stupor he did seem to be making a clenched fist and a lurching gesture in the sergeant’s direction when he felt a touch on his arm and then saw Mason, intervening. “That’s all right, Sergeant,” he was saying, “let him in on my pass, if you will. He’s—uh—my man, and I’ll need him to help carry some things out.” He turned to Cass, his voice ill-tempered: “You’re a big help, Buster Brown. I tried to wake you up for fifteen minutes. Let him through, will you, Sergeant?” “Yes, sir. Right you are, sir.” And so, trailing Mason, he pushed into the place—his man, now. It was close to the last bleeding straw… .

  He felt himself slowly going. The booze he might have tolerated. Or he might have sustained himself even in the depths of pure exhaustion. But booze in company with his exhaustion (how many hours of sleep had he averaged daily in the past weeks —four? three?—he did not know, aware only of a weariness so profound that it threatened thought, sanity, threatened sleep itself, which in turn was so racked and haunted by his nightmarish six-times-daily ritual hike that even in his dreams his feet kept steadily plodding over rocks and boulders, his mind counting landmark cypresses, his fingers pumping life and sustenance into Michele’s ever-outstretched arm)—whiskey and exhaustion were too much, and together they conspired to unseat his senses. “Mah BAH-lews will be yo’ BAH-lews,” the voice was crooning, in a vindictive whimper, “some day, baby”—and as Cass trailed after Mason toward the food market he felt overpowered, in spite of himself, by a kind of numb, despairing hilarity. In front of him a red-faced rawboned Army matron in slacks loomed up. “Harry!” she crowed. “They don’t have any Reddi-wip!” And Cass, squeezing past her, mumbled, “Merciful God, think of that.” The remark unnoticed, he passed on in Mason’s train, staggering slightly athwart pyramidal towers of canned soup, dog food, and toilet paper, and blundered for a moment into a queue—between two hulking figures, one of them, he dimly discerned, a major in crisp khaki, who scowled and said: “Just a minute there, you. Go to the end of the line.” He giggled, hearing his own lethargic dreamlike voice: “Don’t you believe what they say, Major, peacetime Army ain’t all a bunch of bums, why take you, now, you look like a fine upstanding clean-cut …” but at this moment felt Mason’s clutch on his arm, heard Mason’s smooth apologies—Just a joker, Major, don’t pay any attention—and now Mason’s voice in his ear, the peremptory command: Straighten up, you idiot. I’ll let you make a clown of yourself tonight, any time you want. But not here. Do you want me to get that drug or not? “Sho’, Mason,” he was saying. “Sho’, Sho’, buddy. Anything you say, anything at all.” Shortly after this, briefly separated from Mason in the jostling throng, he found himself half-sprawled across the camera counter amid stacked-up orange boxes of Kodachrome film, amid lenses and light meters and leather camera cases, solemnly sighting through a Brownie. “But what I mean is,” he was cajoling the corporal-clerk, “what I really mean is, is it made for all eternity?” He had begun to wobble dangerously. “I mean can I take and snap a little shot of Myrtle and all the kids, and maybe Mom and Dad too, and Buddy, he’s my brother, and Smitty, he’s my best pal and—” But now he went no further, for almost simultaneously with the clerk’s shouted “Bates, c’mere and help me get this drunk out of here!” he felt Mason’s presence again, heard the apologies, all followed by a moment of blankness so perfect that it was as if someone had stolen up upon him and, quite painlessly and suddenly, bludgeoned him with a sledge hammer. Shortly after (two minutes, five minutes, time had escaped him) he came astonishingly, brilliantly alive, discovering that in some fashion he had ac
quired a child’s rocket gun and that now, with this noisemaker at rightshoulder-arms, he was weaving precariously among the counters, singing at the top of his voice. “‘Gawd … bless … A-murrica!’” he bellowed. “‘Land … ’at I … love!’” Sidestepping some khaki arm outstretched to intercept him, he executed a deft marching manual—wan, hup, reep, jaw—and lurched blindly into a pyramid of Quaker Oats boxes, which flew apart with the impact and came down around his feet in a myriad of separate, puffy explosions. “‘Stand beside her!’ “ he heard himself roar, tramping on. “‘And guide her …’ Gangway!” Stark truth seized him even as he marched—he was courting total disaster—and desperate, prayerful words (Slotkin, old father, old rabbi, what shall I do? Teach me now in my need.) formed a brief and passionate litany on his lips; but wildly beyond control, he marched steadily through the place, scattering dogs, captains, colonels, children, shoppers, bellowing imperial commands. “Gangway! Out of the way, you Army trash! Make way for a real live foursquare Amurrican!” Zock! he went with the rocket gun, taking aim at a cowering Army wife. Zock! “That one’s to pay back the Founding Fathers!” Zock! A portly colonel, quivering, blazing with outrage, came into his line of fire. Zock! “That one’s to pay for the right honorable lady ambassador!” Zock! “That one there’s to pay for foreign aid! Globaloney!” Zock! It was, he knew numbly, the end of the trail. A shudder ran up his back, and the familiar sour taste, presaging the onslaught of oblivion, rushed up beneath his tongue even as he took sight upon a bespectacled major and his wife, aiming to get two ducks with one blast. “Here’s one to comfort the shade of Thomas Jefferson!” he howled. And the rocket gun, expiring, uttered one last feeble and uncertain Zock! as he felt strong arms seize him at last, and as the day reeled and heaved and collapsed into darkness… .

 

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