Set this house on fire, p.7
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       Set This House on Fire, p.7

           William Styron

  “Cold as stone,” I said. “In a coma. At least he was that way six months ago. I get a letter from this hospital in Naples every now and then. A nun there, she writes me.”

  “Ah merciful Jesus,” he whispered. “So that would make it—how long? Two years for the poor bugger. You think he’ll ever pull out of it?”

  “I don’t know. Some people have been known to be out five, ten years—even more. I’ve talked to doctors—friends, you know —and they say it’s entirely possible, but don’t bank on it. I send a little money every now and then.”

  “So it’s not your fault.” He paused again, and now this swift and vagrant look of sorrow, which I was to notice so many times when I was with him, traveled across his face: it was just a flicker, no more, reflecting loss, regret, yet an infinity of remembered pain. Then it was gone as quickly as it had come, and his face was all repose again, and peace, and wrinkled forbearance and calm. “So it’s not your fault,” he said again. “But you suffer over it. You’re bound to. You suffer over things like that and you can shake—believe me—you can shake at the whole universe like a madman, hollering for an answer, and all you’ll get is this here little snicker. Which is God, or somebody, telling you to keep a stiff upper lip. Dio buono! There ain’t—Hooboy, watch it! You got a bite!”

  But the fish already had wriggled itself off my hook. “Prob’ly a crab,” said Cass, “or an eel.” He looked at the sky. “Must be around twelve-thirty,” he murmured. “Poppy’s just about getting lunch ready, I reckon.”

  “But what I could never understand,” I said, getting back to the main topic, “what seemed to me so incredible was not so much what he did at first. Rape. That was right down Mason’s alley, you know.” I halted. “No, maybe not that kind of rape. I couldn’t imagine him going that far. Sadism, you know. Killing and all the rest. But the rape itself was at least believable. What I just couldn’t figure out was this—well, what must have been this remorse of his. The remorse and then what must have been the final courage or guts or something to finish himself off like that in one last act of atonement. You know, it takes—”

  “Suicide?” Cass put in. He removed the cigar from his teeth and squinted at me, making a thin smile. “It does not take anything whatsoever, my friend. Maybe desperation. Guts is the last thing it takes.” He gazed at me, not without humor, shrewd, tugging gently at his line. “It don’t take courage, guts, or anything else. You’re talking to a man that knows. Goddam gnats,” he said, slapping.

  He had said something like that only the day before; it puzzled me then as it puzzled me now, but again, as at that moment, he allowed me no time to ponder it: almost as if he felt he had let slip something he should not have said, he went on with a question, shoving Mason aside and interrogating me: “What happened to your car, anyway? It was a crazy fantastic mess. Did you ever get it fixed?”

  “No,” I said, “I didn’t have time. Remember how—well, you know it wasn’t more than a few hours after that when all hell broke loose. It was monstrous, you know. I arrive in that kind of state, shattered anyway. Then the next day Mason’s dead. After that I didn’t care. I sold it to Windgasser for junk. Just before I flew back to New York. I think he gave me a hundred dollars for it.”

  “You mean our old sweet padron di casa Fausto?” He chuckled. “Now wouldn’t you just know. Swear to God, on doomsday that guy will be scalping tickets for the seats front and center, including his own. I’ll bet he fixed that wreck up and made six hundred percent on the deal.” He chuckled again and fell silent. Then after a bit he said: “Tell me this, boy. Just how drunk was I that day, down there on the road? I mean when we ran into each other.” His gaze upon me was so solemn that I began to fidget.

  I started to say something but he broke in: “I mean the reason I ask, you see, is because somewhere along the line there everything just plain blacked out for me. Everything. Then it was the wee hours and I was in the shower and you were trying to sober me up. Everything between is a complete bare-assed blank. I’m trying to pin down the time when everything blanked.”

  “I don’t know,” I said, straining once again for memory. “Hell, you didn’t seem so drunk. Well, as I say, you did get wound up finally and started haranguing me about some of those movie stars, but I’ll swear even then you didn’t seem—”

  “Mamma mi’!” he cried suddenly, in a cackle of laughter. “Those outrageous preening Hollywood puffheads! I’d almost forgotten about them. What the hell were they doing there? Oh yes—Jesus, it all comes back! That watered-down Humphrey Bogart type—what was his name again? Burns! And that dream-doll, Alice Adair, with the tiny little brain. And Cripps—yes, I remember him.” He turned, grinning, lined crinkled face rosy with amusement. “You know, the more I think about it the happier I am that you came down here. I was so unmercifully drunk. And now here you are, like some private seeing-eye, taking me back through the blind spots. I mean it.”

  “That director,” I said. “Cripps. He was on your side, you know. All the way.”

  “I know it,” he said reflectively, scratching his chin. “I wish—” But then again, as if with a sudden onslaught of private, hidden sorrow, his face shadowed over and he fell silent. “Blues,” he said wistfully, after a while. “That’s what we should be trying to catch. Bluefish as big as your thigh, up in North Carolina. There’s a place called Oregon Inlet where they are as thick as fleas. And each one’s mighty good sport, you know. One time when I was a kid me and my uncle went up there on a kind of week end, and got us a boat, and we hauled blues in until I swear my hands got scraped plumb raw—”

  “But you know when I first saw you there on the road,” I said with some persistence now, “one thing I remember almost the most was when Poppy said something to me. About, well—” I paused. “Correct me if I’m wrong. She was really upset, you see, and she said something about Mason I think dominating you… .”

  As usual (and I should have foreseen it) it was as if I were a radio which he snapped off gently, courteously, but with absolute and final determination: about Mason he would utter scarcely a word. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said, “I don’t know about that. It wasn’t really as bad as it looked, you might say.” His eyes went skyward. “Getting late, you know.” And with that we pulled in our lines, Cass started the outboard, and we put-putted back to shore for lunch.

  I had looked forward to a week end at most. Yet, risking my job by overextending my vacation (several telegrams went to New York later, proclaiming sudden illness), I stayed for more than two weeks. No doubt it was his native generosity, the mannerly long-suffering hospitality of a fellow southerner, which allowed Cass to put up with my barging in on him as I did—that, and perhaps the fact that I had, after all, done him one or two favors in Sam-buco. But I was not asking for repayment. Generosity, hospitality, kindness—these were a part of his nature, and that we liked each other goes without saying; but the understanding and harmony that grew up between us and drew us together came from another source. I realized it soon: deep down and for reasons I couldn’t fathom, he had his own private riddles to solve and untangle. And just as I thought that he could clear up my oppressive mysteries, so he saw in me the key to his own.

  I had offered to stay at a hotel. Cass wouldn’t have it. “We’re not exactly waxing fat off capital gains,” he said, “but we sure as hell can give you a sack.” My share of the groceries, however, he allowed me to buy. I slept in a mildew-smelling attic high up under the eaves of the rambling, desperately run-down and creaking old house he had near the Battery, and each morning I awoke to the sound of his children stampeding below, and Poppy shrilling after them as she got them set for school; for a bachelor it was an oddly pleasant and familial sound, and I would lie there for a while, listening, until this noise diminished finally, mingling with the soft Negro chanting of flower peddlers on the cobbled lanes outside. Directly below, I could hear Cass clumping around in the room where he painted every morning. Around my window the scent of jasmine bl
oomed, mockingbirds caroled in the garden, and, propped on my elbow, wide awake now, I would look down on the leafy sun-speckled unblemished streets of one of the loveliest towns in the western world.

  “It just plain is” said Cass. “Funny thing, you know, in Europe there sometimes, when everything got as low as it could get for me, and I was hating America so much that I couldn’t even contain my hatred—why even then I’d get to thinking about Charleston. About how I’d like to go back there and live. It almost never was North Carolina, or the pinewoods up there in Columbus County where I was brought up. I didn’t want to go back there and I sure as hell didn’t want to go back to New York. It was Charleston I remembered, straight out of these memories I had when I was a boy. And here I am.” He pointed across the wide harbor, radiant and gray-green and still as glass, then in an arc around the lower edge of the town where the old homes, deep in shade, in hollyhock and trumpet vine and bumblebees, had been defiled by no modish alteration, no capricious change. “You’ll search a long way for that kind of purity,” he said. “Look at that brickwork. Why, one of those houses is worth every cantilevered, picturewindowed doghouse in the state of New Jersey.”

  We fished and we swam. Swimming with Cass was a passion; he was like a porpoise, and gulping bubbles arose where he vanished for interminable moments. Often we rowed in Cass’ skiff with the blond and bright-eyed children. But most of all we talked. Luck, as it turned out, was with us. The painting class he taught ("It’s not like having shares in General Electric,” he said, “but you’d be surprised at how well you can do, if you work at it.") had closed for the summer, his part-time job at the cigar factory had folded, and there was this interim space in which to take it easy. “I only took that job to get free cigars,” he told me, “which I’ve got to have now that I’m off the booze. But it’s absolutely disgusting, you know. These cigars, they’re homogenized. Actually, that’s what they do: they take good smoking tobacco and squeeze it up like they were making candy and feed it into a big machine and it all comes out about as tasty as a piece of stale chewing gum. Great big blooping hunks of dog hockey. Don’t tell me these machines help mankind, boy. I ran one. I got so dreary-assed bored it near about soured me on cigars forever. Which would have been a tragedy. Most artists are oral, this head doctor told me once, and they’ve got to have something to chomp on.”

  We shared a love for music, which helped. He had put together a hi-fi set out of parts. He was on what he described as a Buxtehude “jag” and while I was there we must have heard “Alles was ihr tut” fifty times.

  And there were outings almost daily to the leaky and half-collapsed fishing shack on the river—sometimes just the two of us alone, sometimes with Poppy, on Saturdays and Sundays en jamille, conveyed there in a third-hand army-surplus jeep which Cass had bought for a hundred dollars, and in which the seven of us (eight including the colored girl, Dora) bounced together in a writhing nest of mashed toes, wails, and sticky laps. The cabin was in a grove of live oaks bluish and creepy with Spanish moss. And here on the bank or afloat on the river, half-hypnotized by the heat and stillness and the glimmering noons, we tried to make sense out of the recent past.

  “What about Rosemarie?” I asked him one day. “That great blond bundle of Mason’s. What about her?” Hazarding a foray into what I had come to feel was forbidden territory, I thought I might con him into talking about Mason by using that most oily of gambits—sex. “I don’t mean to be naive,” I went on. “I know that something like her around the premises wasn’t any guarantee that he wouldn’t have his hands on every female in sight. But you’d think that she would have been enough for him. Even him. At least enough so that if the girl—Francesca, you know—if she had turned him down as she obviously had, he wouldn’t have gone off his rocker like that.” I paused. “It just doesn’t add up,” I went on. “I mean, I knew Mason. But what he did was—well, it was incredible. To be a—you know, a cocksman is one thing, but a rapist is another. I mean a real out-and-out sex fiend is not what Mason—”

  “She was quite a bimbo, that Rosemarie,” he said drowsily. “A real foursquare, fluid-drive humping machine. Godalmighty. What a man couldn’t have done with—” His voice tapered off and for a while he was silent. “I don’t know anything at all about Rosemarie,” he said evasively. “Nothing.” He propped his elbow on his knee and gazed at me with bright intensity. “That was the trouble, see? When I was in Europe I didn’t know anything at all. I was half a person, trapped by terror, trapped by booze, trapped by self. I was a regular ambulating biological disaster, a bag full of corruption held together by one single poisonous thought—and that was to destroy myself in the most agonizing way there was.” He got up from where he had been leaning against a tree, tense now, the humor and warmth dissipated, and began to pace the ground. I prepared myself. Occasionally he would do this: that gentle and easygoing thread would seem to snap within him, and he was abruptly all tension, recriminations, gloom. Even his diction changed. In the oddest way I was reminded of some red-necked Baptist preacher, garrulous and thick on the sidewalk with informal folksy good humor, who, ascending into the pulpit, turns into a tower of glitter-eyed fire and passion. And the strange thing was that, with Cass, it didn’t seem incongruous at all. Now in a pair of discolored swimming trunks, skeins of fallen moss clinging to his wet burly legs, he paused, made a painful expression, and pounded the side of his head to get the water out of his ears. “A man cannot live without a focus,” he said. “Without some kind of faith, if you want to call it that. I didn’t have any more faith than a tomcat. Nothing. Nothing! How can I tell you about Mason or Rose-marie or anyone else? I was blind from booze two thirds of the time. Stone-blind in this condition I created for myself, in this sweaty hot and hopeless attempt to get out of life, be shut of it, find some kind of woolly and comforting darkness I could lie in without thought for myself or my children or anyone else. Look at these hands, these fingers! Look at ’em, boy! See how steady they are when I hold them out here? Not a twitch, not a tremble, see? With practice I could be like that doctor who could tie surgical knots in catgut with two fingers stuck inside a matchbox. I’m bragging, these hands are one of my most precious attributes. Yet there was a time when a glass of wine in my hands could be no more than half full, else it would all slosh out. There was a time when I would look down at these hands and they’d be shaking and twitching so much that I swear to God they seemed to belong to somebody else, some old man with the palsy, and I’d pray for them to stop shaking until I wept.” He paused and nodded his head. “I don’t want to tell you my old troubles,” he said. “This isn’t no groaners’ bench.”

  “Don’t stop,” I said. “I’m listening.”

  He sat down beside me. “No, that wasn’t it,” he went on. “The booze, I mean. It went deeper than that. I was sick as a dog inside my soul, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out where that sickness came from. I told you the other day about—well, about how I was brought up, up there in Columbus County, dirtpoor and an orphan and all. For a long time I thought that was it. Orphanhood, pore shivering orphanhood! Or how I never got an education past second-year high school. Ignorance, pore downtrodden ignorance! I remember when I was in Paris there, trying to be a painter, and in Rome too, the chorus of this wonderful old hillbilly song used to come back to me.” He paused. “Maybe I’ll tell you about Paris sometime. I had the goddamdest thing happen to me there I ever had in my life. Anyway,” he went on, “this here song was called ‘The Dying Paper Boy,’ and the chorus went: I never had the chance that other boys had, I never had no mom nor no dad.’ Nor no dad,” he repeated, with a short chuckle. “Christ on a bleeding toboggan! I used to sing that all the time. I had enough self-pity wallowing around inside me to float a whole raft… .

  “Or the war,” he continued, “that was a good thing to peg it on. The crushing horrors of combat in the grim Pacific. Ha! Or the fact that I’d married a Catholic and a Yankee to boot, who had tricked me and saddled me with a
colicky brood of noisy tadpoles whose very presence would be a hindrance to a bank clerk or a shoe salesman or an art critic, much less someone who was a sensitive bunch of nerves like myself. Or, well—” He fell silent again but the shade of a grin lingered on his lips.

  “O.K.,” I said. “So—”

  “So I traveled blindly down across that continent, full of booze and blind as a bat, abusing my family and abusing myself—teetering on an edge between life and death that wasn’t much thicker than a hair, you might say, until I got to Sambuco. I thought I might pull out of it there for a while, but I was deluded. On that day you saw me I was blinder than I ever was before or since. That’s why I can’t tell you anything about anything. I was numb, out, stoned—and for the life of me I can’t tell you what happened. Only—”

  Poppy called from the cabin. “Cass! Peter! Your beans are going to get co-wuld!”

  “Only what?” I said.

  “Hold your horses, honey!” he shouted. “Only you can tell me something, maybe. Maybe you can.”

  “Tell you what?”

  “Tell me about that day. Think hard. There are several things already that—”


  “O.K! On our bleeding way!”

  And so I had to tell him my story first… .

  I barely made it up the hill to Sambuco after leaving Cass and Poppy on the road. It was a murderous climb for my ravaged Austin. After half an hour or so, and a dozen engine-cooling halts along the way, I came in sight of Sambuco’s archaic gate: here the car in final mutiny quivered and fulminated and drifted to a stop as the magnificent sea came into view a thousand feet below and as all the trappings of the barbaric valley I had climbed—crags and cliffs and lizard-skittering walls—slipped out of sight behind me. I could hardly believe that I had made it.

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