Set this house on fire, p.8
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       Set This House on Fire, p.8

           William Styron
 

  Through the archway I could see the piazza of the town, captured in a dazzling noose of sunlight, but the view of the sea from these heights was immediately so theatrical and romantic that it was a few moments before I realized that both town and square seemed oddly quiet and deserted. It was a stunning view. I stood there for a few seconds hypnotized, once again filled with momentary relief. On the high slope across the valley some wretched poor sheep were grazing, but so perilously and at such a slant that, like cutouts pasted there by children, they looked vulnerable to the slightest gust of wind. Then with a sound akin to music and almost beautiful, a bus horn’s two fat honking notes floated up from the valley; this and then a church bell far off behind me in the scrubby wilderness made me aware again of how unnaturally silent it was here at the entrance to the town. I trudged off through the dark mildewed archway in search of a telephone, troubled once more, and despairing, and conscious at my sleeve of the quick futile clutch of a hand, of the carabiniere in the shadows who whispered to me frantically, much too late: “Signore, aspen’! C’è il film!”

  I must have only half-heard the cop. At any rate, it pains me still to describe what happened as I strode unheeding past his groping hands, out of the moldering archway, and into the glare of Sambuco’s piazza. Submerged in my worries, I must have been so absorbed that I did not notice the fidget and buzz of industry around the cafe table I blundered into, where sat a man and a woman chattering busily. Here, suddenly and fuzzily bewildered, I tapped the shoulder of a scowling waiter hovering near, my lips parted on the first breath of a question: Cameriere, per favore, c’è un telefo …

  From behind me, I heard someone roar: “Cut! Cut! Jesus Christ, cut!”

  I turned to find myself exposed to a battery of cameras and arc lights and reflectors, and now to the pop-eyed rage of a roly-poly little man in Bermuda shorts bearing down upon me, his lips curled around the butt of a cigar.

  “Hey, paesan!” he yelled. “Vamoose! Get the hell out of here! Umberto, tell this guy to get out of here! He just killed a hundred feet of film! Vamoose out of here, paesan’!”

  I felt a multitude of eyes upon me—from the mob of townspeople I saw gathered behind ropes gazing on, from the movie folk clustered beneath the lights, especially from the two people at the table I had blundered into. One of them was Carleton Burns, who returned my gaze with his world-famous look of bored, functional disgust. No one laughed. It was like dwelling in an extremely bad dream. For a moment, in the same way that di Lieto’s old grandmother had scared me, I felt the queasy visceral terror of a small boy caught at some lurid trespass, and I went weak, cold, and limp and I sensed the blood of pure humiliation knocking at my temples, but then suddenly something in me—perhaps it was the heat, or simply this final embarrassment, or the fact that now, after suffering such conquest all day at the hands of Italy, it was my own countryman, a waddling small blob of one but nevertheless a countryman, who was abusing me—anyway, something within me popped like a valve, and I began to boil over.

  “Umberto!” he shouted at me, though not to me. “Tell that carbinary to keep these people away! Tell this guy to get the hell out of here. Vam—”

  “Vamoose yourself, you miserable jerk!” I howled. “Don’t talk to me like that! Do I look like an Italian? I’ve got as much right to this square as you do! Who do you think you are, ordering me around—” In the wilting heat minute orange globes of hysteria exploded before my eyes and I heard my voice bubble up and upward, precariously pitched and rabid but somehow, I knew, almighty, for as I kept shouting at the little man I saw him stop dead in his tracks, cigar butt wagging uncertainly like a semaphore, and with eyes bulging goiterously in indecision and I suspect disbelief. Of the two final things I remember saying, the first—“You can’t push Italians around!”—seemed as I spoke unscientific and hollow, but a mawkish sense of triumph, the first of the day, swept over me as I yelled, “I’m a tired, weary man!” and on that note turned on my heels and stalked shuddering like a beleaguered and temperamental actor off what, it suddenly occurred to me, was a set.

  I might have walked out of the square, down the mountainside and back to Rome, so sore and consuming was my bitterness, had I not at that instant run into Mason Flagg. He was standing at the archway; he had seen it all, and appeared to be beside himself with joy. In a sport shirt baroque with silver flowers, a white ski cap raked sideways across his skull, he was hooting with laughter; as I approached him his laughter slackened to a silent, convulsed chuckle and one shoulder went up briefly in that high-strung twitch I had forgotten, but which I might have recognized him by, at any angle and from any distance, whether in Sambuco or Paris or Peru.

  “Old Petesy,” he said, giggling, pumping my hand, “let’s flap off on a wild one to Goochville.”

  It was a private reference to our days in prep school. I remembered that it had always been his custom—whenever we met after a long time—to greet me in some such fashion and I generally answered in kind, with schoolboy bravura, though never without feeling slightly asinine.

  “Man, let’s really flap one,” I responded briskly. “Who was that guy running off at me out there, Mason? He burnt me up—”

  “Some assistant director. Rappaport, I think his name is. Don’t let him worry you. He gives everybody a pain. I think Alonzo should give you a job, Petesy boy. You were terrific out there.”

  “Well, I’m sorry,” I began, “if I messed up their scene. I’ve had a terrible day. I was coming down the highway outside Pompei and I ran smack into—”

  “Petesy, you look great!” he broke in. “I’m certainly glad you could come. How long has it been? Three years? Four? I don’t think you’ve changed a bit. A little fatter in the cheeks, maybe, less haunted in aspect—and I should say more self-gratified around the glands. How’s all this Italian twat you’ve been getting, Petesy? I’ve heard that a man hasn’t even begun to savor life, until he’s had one of these native girls moaning mamma mia to him in the sack. Petesy, you look absolutely in top condition!”

  “Thanks, Mason,” I said, without enthusiasm.

  I must have queered the movie-making for the day, for around the cameras there was a tired air of dismantling, and the towns-people, flocking past the ropes, had once again taken possession of their lovely square.

  “Don’t let it bother you,” Mason reassured me, as we walked toward a cafe across the piazza. “They’re running this outfit like a carnival. For Christ sake, that scene you just got yourself into wasn’t even written until three hours ago. It’s the damndest production you ever saw. Writers dropping like flies.”

  “How long are they going to be here?” I asked, with a twinge of expectation. Through his family Mason had always been in contact with the movie world, but although I had known him off and on since boyhood my acquaintance with the celebrities of that world had been more distant than I might have wished. I had an awe of those people almost teen-age in its dazzlement, and the hope now of some actual fellowship—no matter how fugitive—colored my imagination with a sudden iridescent allure. “Are they going to be here very long?”

  “There’s that little jerk Rappaport,” he said, as if he hadn’t heard me. “Don’t worry about him. You know what his first name is? Guess.”

  “I couldn’t guess, Mason.”

  “Van Rensselaer. They call him Rense. Jesus sake.” He twitched his shoulder up jerkily, as if he were trying to throw it out of joint. In the center of the square we made our way through a jabbering crowd of movie extras, from which two handsome Italian girls in skimpy black sunsuits detached themselves, slithering across our path with a great deal of pelvic animation. Mason took my arm. “Now just look at that,” he said. “Petesy, there’s more twat up on this mountaintop than a wise man could possibly handle. Just look at that stuff. I’d get a double-indemnity clause in my insurance policy before I’d play humpty-dump with something like that all night. Godalmighty,” he sighed, moving in lean long strides beside me, “it sure is good to s
ee you again, Petesy. How is this Italian stuff? You must be a veteran.”

  “Well—” I began, but “So long, Seymour!” he was shouting, flapping his arm at a young man who, perched in the cockpit of a Jaguar at the piazza’s sheer edge, seemed prepared for flight into space. “See you in the moom pitchers!” Then, “There goes the last writer,” he said to me. “Nice guy. Used to write novels.

  “Oh, God only knows how long they’re going to be here,” he went on, “a couple of days, a week—you never can tell, the way they’re making this picture. They only got here just a few days ago, right after I wrote you, as a matter of fact. I don’t know what the exact pitch is, financially, except there’s something about blocked-up lire, around a million dollars’ worth, that the company had to play with, and so they dug up this horrible old costume novel about Beatrice Cenci and then assembled this half-American, half-Italian cast, and then found that the wardrobe and properties strained the budget all out of whack and so they decided to do it as a farce, in modern dress. I don’t know. Anyway, they’ve been all over Italy messing around with the story and hiring writers and firing them, or they quit, because the whole story has gotten so grotesque, and the whole thing finally became such a colossal mess that Kirschorn, the producer—he’s sitting on his fat ass up in Rome, at the Hassler—told Alonzo to get the outfit out of his sight and just finish the goddam thing. So Alonzo—say, you might have seen him at Merryoaks when we were kids; he was a great pal of the old man’s—anyway, Alonzo had been to Sambuco before and decided it would be a fine place to booze it up and look at the view while they were getting the abortion over with. Alonzo and I ran into each other the morning they got here. Say, there’s Rosemarie now! Hey, baby!” he cried, grabbing my arm and pointing at me. “Look, Peter’s here!”

  From an archway near the café we were heading for, the loftiest girl I had ever laid eyes on came ambling along in saffron-colored slacks and halted, tall as a watchtower, shielding her eyes from the sunlight. Then with a sudden pucker of boredom on her lips she minced onward in a giraffe-like promenade of blond and towering beauty, a vast handbag spinning from her elbow. I drew up short, transfixed both by her splendor and her height.

  “Is that yours?” I said.

  “That’s her,” he said, almost majestically. “Why?”

  “She’s gorgeous. But—but she must be ten feet high!”

  “Calm yourself, Petesy,” he said with an indulgent laugh, “she’s only a little over six-feet-one. She’s shorter than I am.” Proceeding toward her, we were silent for a brief moment, then he added: “The first time I got her in the sack I thought I was climbing Kang-chenjunga—” which made me writhe a little, but I murmured something appreciative in reply.

  “Her last name’s de Laframboise,” he explained with a chuckle. “And don’t laugh. It’s her real name. She comes from a very good, loaded-with-dough Long Island family, and she’s only twenty-two. French Huguenot. She’s had all the best advantages—Miss Hewitt’s Classes, Finch, everything.” I was unable to tell now, from his matter-of-fact voice, whether he was kidding or not. “She was modeling when I first met her, making enough dough to thumb her nose at her family and hit the road with your old daddy here. Anyway,” he added, with what sounded like a gratuitous hint of apology, “she’s really a good gal. Absolutely no inhibitions at all, and a heart of gold. She’s no dum-dum, either.”

  Now in the shadows of an umbrella-darkened table Rosemarie bloomed like an immense daffodil, her golden head bent down upon a copy of The New Yorker. As we drew near she looked up and regarded me with an equanimity so blank that it might have been plastered on, along with the cosmetic gloss that overlaid the big, elegant contours of her face.

  “Hello, Peter Leverett,” she said in a throaty voice, “I’ve hehd so much about you from Muffin.”

  “Muffin?”

  A single bright sound of laughter escaped her lips. “Oh, I’m sorry. It’s my nickname for Mason. Mason, darling, did that embarrass you? It’s the fehst time I ever betrayed you.” Then, turning to me: “But you are such an old friend, aren’t you, Peter Leverett? I just feel I’ve known you for years.” Her face was still no more than a beautiful mask, but her voice—in spite of that clamp-jawed North Shore accent, which not alone by geography has always seemed to me at such close remove from Brooklyn—was warm and amiable, and I sank down in a chair beside her, feeling considerably shortened as I ordered a beer.

  “Alonzo said they had to shoot one more scene up the hill, darling,” she said, turning to Mason. “Burnsey and Alice said they’d see us tonight.”

  “What about Gloria?”

  “She’s got the trots, but she said she’d be up tonight, too. You know what she told me? She said, ‘Dahlings, these Italian foods geeve me intestinal wrongings.’ Isn’t that superb?”

  Mason heaved a great roar of laughter. “That’s marvelous! It’s almost poetry. Shakespeare, isn’t it? Cleopatra? That girl’s a dream. Wait’ll you meet Mangiamele, Peter. Her English has to be heard to be believed. Look, waiter, the beer’s for the gentleman over there. I ordered a double bourbon and soda.”

  “Come, signore?” The waiter, a woebegone, slope-shouldered little man, stood above us stranded in bafflement.

  “A double bourbon and soda.”

  “Non capisco.”

  “Oh Jesus sake, Peter, tell him—”

  “C’è del bourbon whiskey?” I asked.

  “Whiskey?” the waiter said. “Si, ma solo Il Vaht Sessantanove. Skosh. È molto caro.”

  “Oh Jesus sake,” Mason was saying, “some of them are so opaque. Why did he take my order in the first place if he didn’t have the faintest, wispiest comprehension—”

  “Will Vat 69 do, Mason? He says it’s very expensive. Va bene,” I said to the waiter, “un doppio whiskey.”

  “They’re so dim, some of them,” Mason said, after the man had padded off. “Now don’t look at me like that, please, with that glazed look of disapproval. I know I sound like a horrible American interloper passing out all sorts of passe nineteenth-century sentiments, but honest to God, some of the people up here are really beyond belief, and I don’t mean—”

  From Rosemarie, face invisible behind her New Yorker, came a sudden crash of mirth, amplified deafeningly by the spacious sounding-board of her bosom. “Honestly,” she cried, “sometimes I think Wolcott Gibbs is the drollest—”

  “Oh stop, Rosemarie,” he commanded, cutting her short, “can’t you put that down for half a second? Peter’s been here precisely three minutes and you’re slobbering over that magazine like a basset hound—”

  I saw an abashed “Sorry” form soundlessly on her lips, and the magazine slid to the earth with a flutter; then as Mason continued, she was all big blue eyes, all attention, her chin propped up on her hands amid a bouquet of scarlet fingernails.

  “—and I’m not simply talking about what they call the language barrier,” he was saying. “I’m really not so simple-minded or naive or arrogant, or whatever you want to call it, to expect them all to speak the language. And I’m not talking about that waiter, who looks like a nice guy with nothing wrong with him that a couple of gallons of penicillin wouldn’t cure. I’m only speaking of the stupidity, really, the economic stupidity of a cafe owner in a resort town where at least half the clientele must be English-speaking, who can’t or won’t employ a waiter who speaks the language. After all, we have to face it, don’t we, that English is the pre-eminent language of the world? Well, don’t we?”

  “Yes indeed, Mason,” I said. “By all means.” Three gulps of beer, which had rocked me like dynamite, brought new lunatic dimensions to my exhaustion: gazing straight at him through gritty, aching eyes I tried to tell whether it was he, or merely the struggles of the day, that had brought me now to such a numb, anticlimactic despondency. On the outside he had changed hardly at all. Much of his gangling look had gone; the weight he had taken on since I had last seen him was attractive, it hadn’t sleekly plumped up his j
owls but gave solid lines of maturity to that slim smart pretty-boyishness I knew he had always secretly abhorred. Clothes-horse, too, he remained: the silk brocade sport shirt he wore was bright with glints of threaded gold, made for a princely waist; it must have cost as much as an entire suit of clothes, and no one I knew, except Mason, could wear it with such ease or let it flap out, beach-fashion, as he did, without looking like a clown. Mason was an immensely attractive young man, and the years since I had last seen him had added a suave luster to his beauty.

  And with all of this I felt burdened under the blackest sort of gloom. Mason’s voice buzzed back into focus.

  “I notice you speak the language pretty well, Petesy boy.” His voice was abruptly so arch that it was hard to tell whether he spoke with admiration or remonstrance.

  “I think Italy’s gotten you all upset, Mason,” I said wearily. “I had to learn it. I’ve been here for three years, after all.”

  “Well, Peter Leverett—” Rosemarie began.

  “Call him Peter or Petesy, Rosemarie, or Goo-Goo or Lover Man, for Jesus sake. But not Peter Leverett. Where did this double-name business come from? Is that all the rage now?”

  “I’m sorry, darling. Well, Peter—do you mind?—I think I know what Mason’s trying to convey. Do you mind, darling?” She turned to him briefly, but whether she ignored the glance of reproach he shot her, or merely didn’t detect it, I couldn’t tell. “What I think Mason’s trying to convey is the sort of—well, trauma that affects one when one comes to a foreign country. Even when you’ve been abroad before. I don’t know, getting off the boat in Naples, the terrible heat and the strange dark little people and all the horrible noise and confusion. Then last May, when we first got here, Mason came down with this dreadful psychosomatic cold—”

 
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