Set this house on fire, p.6
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       Set This House on Fire, p.6

           William Styron

  “Well, I—”

  “You don’t look like one of Mason’s friends.”

  “What do you mean by that?” I said.

  “Oh nothing. That is, I mean, well—you look so ordinary, if you know what I mean.”

  “Thanks a lot,” I said.

  “Oh no,” she said, flushing a little. “Really, I mean, you look very nice. Only his circle of acquaintance is just so glamorous, that’s all. They’re all connected with the movies, you see, and you—” She paused. A sudden look of consternation, of trouble, passed across her face. “Oh, I think that Mason Flagg’s a terrible man!” she burst out. “He’s just wicked and terrible. A wicked and terrible, phony creep!”

  “How come?” I said. There was something painfully familiar about this speech. It had been four years since I had seen Mason; yet now, gloom piling up on gloom, it occurred to me that it had been the height of folly to hope that Mason had changed, after all. “What’s old Mason up to now?”

  “Well, I won’t tell you, you’re such a good friend of his and all —” Her nose wrinkled in disgust. “But if you could just see how he’s dominated Cass and taken advantage of his condition and all, so that sometimes I’m just at my wit’s end—”

  “What do you mean?” I said, puzzled. “Who’s Cass?”

  But the trouble, a fleeting feather of a thing, had vanished, and she was back on the movie stars again. “I don’t think Cass can stand any of them, except maybe Mr. Alonzo Cripps. Cass even thinks he’s funny-looking, though. I can understand him not liking Carleton Burns. What a pill! And Mr. Alonzo Cripps is so sweet and so funny. He gave Nicky a box of dolci the other day. He’s such a peach. And so brilliant as a director. But that Alice Adair! She’s so prissy and stuck-up. I don’t think she means to be, but she is just the same. Phooey on her, anyway …”

  As she prattled on, a giddy feeling came over me. I shut my eyes tightly while she talked, misery and fatigue creeping through me in a slow malarial chill. I was suddenly conscious of the smell of lemons, far off a steady splash of oars above the chatterbox noise at my side. “Gloria Mangiamele is some potatoes, I’ll tell you. You should see the way the boys’ eyes light up when she walks through the piazza. Mr. Cripps says she makes more money than any movie star in the world, because of Italian taxes or something. Oh, I’ll bet you’re the man that Mason’s been expecting! You’ll meet all of them! Mr. Levenson, what’s the matter? Wake up! Timothy, get out of Mr. Levenson’s face!” My eyelids popped open, and I beheld two eyes as white and round as ping-pong balls, and a chocolate-smeared grin an inch before my nose. “What’s your name?” Timothy said.

  “To hell with it,” I said, starting the motor. “You kids get the hell out of here.”

  “Oh, there’s Cass!” I heard Poppy say. “Children, here come Daddy and Peggy. They caught up with us.”

  I halted, turning. Up the road hand in hand with another child came Cass Kinsolving, who was singing a song:

  “Oh, we went to the animal fair,

  All the birds and the beasts were there;

  Carleton Burns was drunk by turns

  And so was Alice Adair.”

  A poisonous black cigar protruded from his mouth even as he sang; with his free hand he clutched a half-empty bottle of wine, uncorked for use. Over his shoulder was slung a knapsack stuffed with what appeared to be wet bathing suits, and the sack was dripping. In dungaree pants and nondescript sport shirt, a smudged beret aslant over his forehead, he approached us with a freewheeling, jaunty, nautical stride, still singing—

  “Mangiamele with the luscious belly …”

  —and nearing us now, seeing the mutilated car, ceased his song and stopped in his tracks with a slow, wondering, half-whispered “Ho-ly Jesus!”

  “Mr. Levenson hit a man on a motorscooter,” Poppy said.

  “Wow!” Cass said. “He sure did!”

  “And knocked out his eyes and broke his legs and cut off two fingers and they don’t know if he’s going to live or not.”

  “Wait a minute—” I began to mutter angrily. “And the name’s Leverett.”

  “Jesus. You poor guy,” Cass said to me. It was the sympathy I had been waiting for and I turned to him gratefully, introducing myself as Mason’s friend. He took a pull from the wine bottle and propped his hands on his hips, surveying the car with a bleak, mournful expression. Sunlight glinted in white disks from his spectacles, giving him an owlish look, and one peculiarly out of place in view of the rest of him, which conveyed at once a vigorous outdoor expression of strength, even of brawn. He was not tall but everywhere solidly muscled, and now as he leaned slightly forward with his look of intent and sensitive concern he appeared like some stevedore turned scholar, or perhaps the other way around. He was thirty or a little more, but lines that looked like marks of trial and labor were like small lacerations on his face. “You must have really cold-cocked him,” he said. “You can see the poor bugger’s ass-end still printed in your radiator. A bloody amazing intaglio. It’s a wonder you can still get the car up these hills. What did you do to him?”

  He nodded solemnly, sucked on his cigar, and gave satisfying little grunts of commiseration as I briefly told him what had happened. The littlest boy, Nicky, played nearby at the side of the road, but Poppy and the other children had climbed part way up the slope through the lemon grove. “Here’s one!” “Here’s another!” I heard them cry, in far-off chirrups of delight and discovery.

  “You poor, thrice-crossed, luckless bastard,” he murmured finally, when I had finished my recital. He spoke with such fellowfeeling and compassion that I wanted to embrace him on the spot.

  “It’s just unbelievable,” I went on bitterly. “They don’t license these jerks, you know. They let some half-wit with half his eyesight gone get on one of these machines, and that’s it, buddy. None of them has any insurance and even if it’s their fault you’re up the creek if they’ve smashed up your car. God knows I’m sorry I laid him out like I did, I don’t want him to suffer any more than his crazy old grandmother does, but after all I’m no millionaire and every time I think of this peasant smashing my front end like this—I’m not insured for that kind of damage and God knows what it’ll cost me—every time I think of that it burns me up!”

  What he said next was not precisely sanctimonious, but its touch of reasoned mercy did not at all harmonize with my resentment. I felt somewhat betrayed.

  He stroked his neck and sighed. “Yes I know,” he said, “it’s mighty tough.” Then after a pause he added: “I don’t know. Those people down there on the plain, they’re so lousy poor, I doubt any of them could afford a license, even if there were such a thing. All those songs about bella Napoli, bella campagna, say otherwise, but I don’t think most of those people get a hell of a lot of fun out of life. I suppose a ride on a borrowed motor scooter is a big thing for some of them. They get all jazzed up and I guess something like this is bound to happen once in a while.” Then as if suddenly aware of the thought running through my mind (you bleeding-heart) he said: “Well, I know that’s one hell of a consoling thing to say to you now. Here, what you need is a slug of Sambuco rosso”

  But I turned down the wine bottle he held out toward me. “I’ve got to get up to Mason’s,” I said shortly. “I’m sorry I don’t have room enough to take you all up.”

  Poppy, perched in the distance on the branch of a lemon tree, called down from the orchard above us. “Mr. Levenson! Mr. Levenson!”

  “Yes?” I said.

  “It’s Leverett, Poppy, for God sake!” Cass shouted.

  “What did you say, darling?”

  “Leverett! Leverett! L-e-v-e-r-e-t-t!”

  “Well, Mr. Leverett!” she cried. “When you see Rosemarie de Laframboise! Do you hear me, Mr. Leverett! When you see Rosemarie! You know, Mason’s girl! When you see Rosemarie when you get up to Sambuco will you ask her something for me!”

  Her shrill little voice grew dim; we could barely hear her.

  “Do you
understand me, Mr. Leverett!”

  “No, Poppy, dammit!” Cass yelled. “We can’t hear you. Come down!”

  “Yasker alendus cheska!” And something else, in a remote caroling voice, that sounded like “Fullishagold!”

  “What’s she talking about?” I asked him. “Who’s this Rosemarie? De Laframboise?”

  His face broke apart in a funny wide smile, not quite lewd but in the same general area. “That’s Mason’s bimbo,” he said. “You’ll meet her.”

  “Rosemarie de Laframboise?”

  Then all of a sudden I realized why the “we” left so unexplained in Mason’s letter had never really puzzled me, since I had known all along that Mason, wherever he was and at whatever time, might be expected to be living with some woman, even one with a name like Rosemarie de Laframboise.

  “Rose-marie de La-fram-boise,” Cass said in careful, fruity syllables. “The works.”

  In the depths of exhaustion—at least in the depths of my exhaustion, I have found—there comes a moment when the spirit makes one last flight outward toward consciousness and reason, before breaking up into crazy splinters, or being extinguished by sleep. At this point all of the senses, worn raw by tiredness, are for an instant uncommonly tender and as receptive to the mildest stimulation as new skin over a recent wound. I suppose this explains why, as Cass spoke, a confusion of emotions swept through me—a sense of wild, glamorous beauty but of something ominous, too, way off in the distance, as if against my tingling eardrums there already beat a sound of catastrophe inaudible to normal ears. For at that moment the sun had sunk far down behind the hills, so that everything in the grove around us—vines, stone walls, and trees—had become shadowy and blue, touched by this early, peculiar dusk. The little boy played in the gutter beside us, thrashing at the stones with a branch and uttering tiny solemn squeaks. Far up the slope Poppy still warbled sweetly away in high tones, not only half-unheard but now half-unseen in the twilight, poised in ghostly suspension among the leaves of her lemon tree. Music drifted up from below, a splash came from across the water. And all about us swam a wanton late-summer odor of earth and lemons and flowers, which sent a sharp blade of nostalgia through me, and phantoms of loveliness to galloping in my mind, and filled me with a rich, sudden craving for something I could not name.

  Then at some moment during this seizure I realized for the first time that Cass, though outwardly composed, was quite drunk, and that again he was talking, not so much to me as to this lowering, tranquil dusk, and was filling it with sunbursts of weird eloquence as he swung his wine bottle through the air. “Their faces,” he was saying. “Their faces! My God, haven’t you seen them? They’re like something out of Goya in his most bilious, baneful, toxic mood. Goya! He would’ve ransomed his legs for a crack at them. One of them—that oldest one—is positively antediluvian. He’s got the primal curse on him, if ever I’ve seen it. And the other one, the lush-head, what’s his name—Burns. There’s a prince for you! I’d have sacks full of gold if he were a Medici. He’s got a slit-eyed Tuscan look, like one of Lorenzo’s seedy, black-sheep cousins dragged into town for a whorehouse romp. He’s the only man alive, I swear, with solid-green eyeballs. Check ’em, Leverett,” he said with a tickled laugh, turning to me, “and see if that’s not a twenty-four-carat fact. And the dame, too. Check her. My God, she’s dazzling. But a spook. Yesterday in the sunlight I saw her turn—it was bright noon with this harsh, enormous brilliance all around—and I swear the death’s-head was laid beneath her skin as plain as if it had been chiseled marble. Then I saw her eyes, and upon my word they evaporated away before me as if they had become dissolved like jelly by that selfsame midday sun—”

  I heard Poppy’s voice, close by us down the slope now, cross and annoyed: “Goodness, Cass Kinsolving, if you can’t find anything to hate better than those movie stars, running on like that. Mr. Leverett is tired and upset and wants to go up the hill. I told you about drinking all that wine on a hot day like this—”

  “Look, Leverett,” Cass went on, “am I boring you? Do you want to see faces, real faces? Are you going to be here for a while? Let me take you back to Tramonti sometime. There are faces there right out of the twelfth century. I’ll show you a face so proud and tragic and full of mortal splendor that you’ll think you had stumbled on Isaiah himself. More! Back there—”

  “Hush!” I heard Poppy say, stamping her foot. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you lately, Cass Kinsolving. Why are you acting like this—”

  “You know,” he said, “there’s an old witch back there makes ninety lire a day, hauling stakes for the vineyard on her back. Ninety lire! Fifteen cents! On her back! I want you to see her face. She’s got a face like something out of Grünewald, with this agony, you see, twisted perpetually on her lips so mean and gray that it’s like some living lamentation—”

  “Stop it now!” Poppy shrilled. “You’re such a bore, Cass, when you drink all that wine! And you’re going to ruin your ulcer! Mr. Leverett, just ignore him. What I was asking you is this: will you please ask Rosemarie de Laframboise to lend us Francesca for the evening? Felicia has a cold and I want to put her right to bed and I want Francesca to help out.”

  “Yes—” I began, but as I spoke, my warm languid sense of beauty swept away from me, replaced by a sickening feeling like terror. Oh God not again, I thought, not again. Because I realized that that hurrying, ominous noise I had heard buzzing in my ears was not a trick; it was real and full of peril, and was now almost on top of us. Ear-racking explosions rent the dusk. “Watch out!” I yelled. “Out of the road!” But it was too late. A gray-green blur surmounted by two crouched figures—a black-haired man hugged close behind by a girl in fluttering red pants—the motorscooter was already among us with a roar, sending Cass and Poppy in startled leaps to the fenders of the car, and children flying like wind-blown scraps of paper in all directions. “You fool!” Cass cried, but again too late. The motorscooter shot on headlong past us, in full-throttled acceleration discharging flatulent backfires of smoke, the girl’s shiny red hips cantering with equestrian, rhythmical bounces to the rocking machine as it vanished at the curve. As we turned then in alarm to the side of the road, Nicky was still pinwheeling around as if sideswiped or clipped, and then he sprawled out on his face in the gutter.

  Poppy fled to his side. “Nicky! Nicky!” she screamed. “Look up at Mother!”

  I knew I had seen this before; abruptly—and I am certain for the first time in my life—I believed in the existence of hell.

  “Speak to me!” she wailed.

  At once we heard a cheerful voice. “I’m all right, Mummy. I just fa’ down.”

  Then over Poppy’s hoarse little sobs of relief, I heard myself telling Cass: “See what I mean about these Italians? They’re sick! They—”

  Cass stopped me with an imperious signal, and a gesture with his wine bottle.

  “Don’t get yourself in a spasm, my friend,” he said quietly. “That wasn’t no Italian. That was one of the flicker creeps. I think he comes from Ioway.”


  “It was one bitch of a day,” said Cass. “A bleeding monstrosity.”

  I agreed that it was. I had told him—in detail, for the first time —about my collision with di Lieto and all the rest. And from time to time he would mop his brow, sweating in the Carolina sun. Then recalling the way I looked, he had laughed in high uproarious knee-slapping laughter, so loud and long that I began to laugh too, possibly aware for the first time of the humor even in that straggling debut; and finally, when we had laughed ourselves out and our mirth chuckled itself down into a kind of ruminative quiet, he said: “I know it wasn’t funny then. It wasn’t funny at all. But Lord, boy, you should have seen yourself. You looked like a big scared bird.”

  “But did you—” I began, then halted, not knowing what else to say. Here we sat, as we had off and on for two days, in a skiff in the middle of the Ashley River, fishing for channel bass. And though he, who had most of the ans
wers, had told me next to nothing, I had told him a lot—I who had nothing to tell. It was hot, and sand gnats skittered about our heads; in place of his beret, which somehow in my memory had seemed a stock cartoon headpiece of the American expatriate, he wore a floppy straw against the blazing noon. This and a pair of old Marine Corps dungarees bleached to the shade of dried grass comprised his angling costume. The heat had misted up his glasses, and he was barefooted. He chewed on a fat cigar, molasses-brown, half-smoked, and unlit.

  “Toadfish,” he said with a snort, yanking aboard a pop-eyed struggling fish, flapping and burping. “Nothing more miserable God ever made. Swallow a couple yards of line in two seconds. Swallow your hand if you’d let him.” He threw the fish back, alive. “Don’t come mooching around here again, toad,” he said to the fish. “Rather hook a water moccasin,” he went on, “almost anything. Look out there. See where the tide rips there? Spot. You got spot up your way, don’t you? Drop a line in there and you’d be dragging fish in for six hours. Don’t need no bait at all. Mighty poor sport indeed, though. One time last July I went out with Poppy and we could have gotten a bushel basket of spot in half an hour. They’re all bones, though, just nothing but bones and only a mouthful.” He rebaited his hook and cast out the line again, squinting against the light. The river shores were immensities of shade —water oak and cypress and cedar; the heat and the stillness were like a narcotic. “September’s a good month for this kind of fishing,” he said after a long spell of silence. “Look over there, over those trees there. Look at that sky. Did you ever see anything so clean and beautiful?” I had never heard the word “clean” spoken with such passion; it had the quality of an offertory or a prayer. He seemed to sense this and, as if to cover up, said: “Un-unh, it wasn’t really funny, was it? The guy. Di Lieto, that his name? You say that he’s still—what?—out?”

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