Set this house on fire, p.9
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       Set This House on Fire, p.9

           William Styron

  “Now, sweetie,” Mason protested wryly, “please come off that psychosomatic dodge. It was a cold. Period.”

  “Well, darling, I’m not blaming you, even if it was psychosomatic. It just fits in with what I’m saying, that coming to a place like Italy can so upset the mind-body relationship that something like a cold is easy to get. That’s all. I remember on the way up here from Naples when you took those antihistamine tablets—remember that first day?—you said, ‘I’m dizzy and it must be because I can’t understand one word these wops are saying—’”

  “Sweetie,” he said in an exasperated tone, “I suppose by now I’ve exposed myself irremediably to you and to Peter as the most grotesque sort of Rotarian, simply because of my vicious, xenophobic remark about the guy who runs this coffee house, but I want to assure you, baby, that I have never yet used the word wop, and that you are lying through your teeth—”

  “I’m sorry, darling,” she put in. Her hand flew to the back of his, in a hurried show of appeasement. “I’m sorry, really. I didn’t mean to imply—”

  “You just said it,” he said sourly.

  “Well, darling, I didn’t mean to imply what you said. All I’m trying to tell Peter is that what I think you were trying to convey was that one can get off on the wrong foot in a strange land simply because the customs and the language—”

  “Anyway, they weren’t antihistamine pills. They were aspirin. I may be a chucklehead straight out of the Lions Club but I’m not a hypochondriac, for Jesus sake.”

  “All right, aspirin then. Anyway, the thing I think you were trying to tell Peter—”

  Except for that day I can remember no time in my life when, sitting bolt upright, I was able to slip without sensation into unconsciousness, but once again I must have drowsed, for as Rosemarie spoke her voice lost both sound and meaning; past the rim of the sleeping square the vast panorama of sky and sea as if filmed over by sheets of yellow-hued dust lost all dimension, and nodding there and dreaming—what was it?—I felt myself in another land, a boy again upon some lowland estuary or riverside where marshlands echoed the incessant fever of a million humming insects and sails like brilliant kites made upon the oceanic sky patterns as swift and ecstatic as the flight of gulls. But the moment shattered in bits like glass and I must have jumped awake as hurriedly as I slept, for I sensed something moist and warming tumbling from my hand, my eyes snapped open, and the beer bottle exploded in a shower of foam around my feet.

  “Peter!” Rosemarie cried. “Poor boy! You look perfectly extinguished! Why don’t you go lie down for a little while?”

  “Well, I would like to go on up to your place and sleep some of this off,” I said groggily. “I’m just absolutely beat. If you’ll just tell me how to get there …”

  At this moment Rosemarie’s expression reminded me of nothing so much as that chic, touching vacuity seen on the mortuary images of ancient Egyptian queens. What she said now, though, seemed to rise to soothe me through some instinctive, sweet, almost clairvoyant understanding. It was only later that night, looking into a mirror at my wrecked and blasted reflection, at my red-rimmed eyes and grease-smeared cheeks and bum’s growth of whiskers, that I realized that, possibly in atonement for her earlier rudeness, she was simply trying to be nice. “Oh, I think you must be absolutely exhausted,” she said. “Did you have any trouble getting here?”

  “Oh God, it was awful,” I said, taking a deep breath. “Near Pompei, this guy came barreling out of a side road on a Lam-bretta—”

  “Petesy, old pal, I’ve got something to tell you,” said Mason.

  “I smashed right into him.”

  “Oh Lord!” said Rosemarie.

  “Petesy baby, excuse me for interrupting—”

  “Wham!” I said hoarsely to Rosemarie. “Just like that!”

  “Oh my!”

  “They’ve got him in the hospital in Naples. I’ve got to call up about him.”

  “Oh, Peter—”

  “Peter,” Mason was nagging patiently.

  “It wasn’t my fault,” I was telling Rosemarie. “The guy already had—”

  “Peter, I’ve got news for you.”

  “—one eye out. What, Mason?”

  “Look, Petesy, I hate to say this, but I want to tell you there have been some slight changes. You know I told you in the letter you could stay with us at the villa? Well, what I’ve done is gotten you this terrific room at the Bella Vista—”

  “For Christ sake, Mason!” I blurted. I was nearly sick now with frustration, and I heard my voice rising whiny, petulant, and objectionable in my throat. “What’s the big idea?”

  “Now don’t get sore, Petesy,” he said affably. “Lemme explain, dollbaby.”

  “Dollbaby my ass, Mason,” I said, a tone of prep-school bickering creeping into my words. “I come down here to see you and on the way I practically get killed! I can’t even get a word in edgewise about it, with all this chatter of yours about antihistamine pills. Then you want me to go squat in some flea-bag after you’ve invited—”

  “Petesy, Petesy, Petesy,” he murmured, gently shaking his head, “if you’d just let me explain.”

  “All right, then,” I said bitterly, “go ahead and explain.”

  “It’s not a flea-bag in the first place. It’s a de-luxe hotel. The guy that runs it is our landlord, a great guy. I reserved you the best room they’ve got, and it’s on me. I’m paying for it. You know damned good and well I’d consider it not only a duty but a pleasure to pay for it. And the only reason I did this is this—now Petesy, dammit, don’t look so glum—the only reason I did it this way is because when the picture unit got here Alonzo got everybody rooms in the various hotels and pensions but—and this is just like Alonzo, the old bear—he completely overlooked finding a place for himself. So I put him in your room in the palazzo—”

  “Why didn’t he take that so-called terrific room at the hotel you reserved for me? For Christ sake, Mason, you invited me—”

  “Petesy, dollbaby,” he said in his placid, patient tone, “Petesy, listen! Someone, some tourist just vacated that room yesterday, after Alonzo was already here.”

  “I suppose if it hadn’t been vacated I’d be sleeping in my car. What’s left of it.”

  “Peter, don’t be ludicrous. You know I’d have gotten you a place. You know that, don’t you, about your old daddy?”

  Now so conciliatory, so smooth and lulling, his voice struck old familiar chords of real affection, and my anger melted away, forcing from me as it vanished a drawn-out sigh. “Oh, O.K., Mason, I’m sorry. I suppose so.”

  “It’s a wonderful room, Peter,” Rosemarie volunteered. “I made Fausto—he’s the proprietor—fix it up this afternoon just for you. It’s got a marvelous view. When the Kinsolvings—they’re the people who live below us at the palazzo—when the Kinsolvings first came here, they said, they stayed there for a few nights and loved it.”

  Mason tittered. “All fifty-seven of them.”

  I rose, no longer outraged, but feeling nonetheless cranky, rude, and somberly disappointed. “I met them down on the road,” I said. “The girl—what’s her name—Poppy—told me, Rosemarie, to ask you if you’d lend her whozis—the serving girl—to help out tonight. Seems that one of the little ones caught a cold.”

  “Where are you going?” Mason asked.

  “Mason,” I said solemnly, “I think I might have killed me a guinea today, but I’ve got to phone up to find out. Then,” I added, turning on my heel, “I’m going up to that terrific room of mine and go to bed.”

  “Petesy,” I heard his voice protesting as I went inside the cafe, “Peter, don’t be that way. You’re supposed to come to dinner tonight!”

  But profoundly drunk from half a beer, my bones like jelly from fatigue, an ominous ticketing sounding in my ears, and, like some stricken diabetic, bizarrely lurching everywhere—with these afflictions I scarcely heard him; indeed, by then so bedraggled was my state that much of the brief remainder
of that afternoon I remember in fantastic scraps and snippets, as if illuminated by flashbulbs set off intermittently in the deepest dark. The phone call I clearly recollect: an abortive parley with madwomen, held in a stifling booth which I shared with a swarm of malodorous flies. “Macché, signore! Chi desidera all’ospedale?” The lines were crossed, there was a shrill meticulous voice in French—“lei Marseille, Naples!”—and many wrathful replies in Neapolitan; after ten minutes I gave up, leaving the two operators locked in horrible bilingual colloquy. Then with despairing indifference I began not to care about di Lieto, and conceived of him cold and dead, and emerged unsteadily from the dripping cupboard, heading once more for the terrace and the square. A bus drew to a stop in the center of the piazza; from its doors poured forth a horde of middle-aged albinos, haggardly berating each other in German. They formed ranks as I stood there, in Lederhosen and dowdy flowered frocks cackling over their Baedekers and clumping forward through a whirling cloud of pigeons toward the church across the way. As I averted my eyes I spied Mason, who rose from the table and hailed me.

  “Pierre, you aren’t sore, are you?” he said seriously. “Look, if you are I’ll just tell Alonzo to switch with you.”

  And I wasn’t really sore at him, I honestly believe, but only tired. This I told him.

  “That’s the boy, Petesy. Look, you go up to the hotel and sack in for a while, then you’re due at the palazzo for dinner at seven-thirty. O.K., man?”

  “O.K., Mason. Ciao. Ciao, Rosemarie.”

  A blank spot. I remembered my bags, which were in the car, but how I got there I am unable to recollect. Someone, at any rate, was lounging at the wheel—a big, flat-faced sallow fellow about my own age, who, when I came into sight, gave me a huge smile filled with snaggled teeth and blackened gums, like a blighted sunrise.

  “Tell me,” I said, “what are you doing inside?”

  “Sto attento alla machina” he said, still beaming. “I am taking care of your car.”

  “Well, descend,” I commanded. “You have no business inside there like that.”

  “Sissignore! Subito!” he exclaimed, clambering out. “Had I not come along those boys would have hurt it more than they did. As it is, you see, they have smashed up your windshield and left a large hole in the front end—”

  “What in God’s name are you talking about?” I said.

  “Those boys from Scala. They are very bad. They came along with a big stick and began to beat up your machine.” As he said this a poignant and final misery seized me, now after so long almost insupportable; it was as if di Lieto’s ghost had stalked me to this mountaintop, for as he spoke the brooding globed skull and vacant eyes, the mouth which, so like that of di Lieto’s in the midst of his canceled desolate slumber, twitched slack and forever uncomprehending and benign—all these informed me that this one, too, was mindless as a chicken, and an awesome feeling neither terror nor compassion but part of both swept over me, made electric and vast in my exhaustion along with some ancient, fleeting hunch that what I beheld, though cruelly marred, was indorsed by heaven. “Io mi occupavo dell’automobile,” he babbled on. “I chased those boys away. Have you an American cigarette?”

  “Pockets full. What is your name?” I said. We sat on the crumpled bumper of the car together while the hazy premature dusk settled in the valley below us, and lit up a couple of Chesterfields. Smelling powerfully of goats, clad in five cents’ worth of rags, he sent blue clouds of smoke billowing through the twilight and pondered my question.

  “I’m called Saverio,” he said finally. “I speak good English. My uncle lived in la città di Brooklyn many years ago. He told me. Listen. Corney Island. Oly Smokes. Skeedo. Wanna pizza tail?”

  “Bene,” I said.

  “Skeedo, that signifies ‘hide the red lobster.’”


  “‘Hide the red lobster,’” he repeated. “Are you with the films? Did you ever hide the red lobster with La Mangiamele? I would dearly love to do that with her. Have you ever? She has such wonderful big breasts.”

  “No,” I said. “Have you?”

  “Never,” he said, gurgling sadly. “I have only done this once in my life which was with a shepherdess named Angelina in Tramonti many years ago. She died though of the evil vapors. Are you a millionaire?”

  I got up, thinking that I heard a faint toy piping sound in the air around us, the sorrowful scamper of naked feet, long ago pursued, long made still. “Vieni, Saverio,” I said, “earn yourself some riches. Those bags there, those boxes. Andiamo! To the hotel!”

  Beneath a mountainous load of suitcases, blankets and bedroll and portable radio, books and tennis racket and guitar, slung from him at all angles like a packhorse and like a packhorse foot-sure, burly, and uncomplaining, he preceded me back through town, singing to himself and gabbling the entire way. “Out of the road!” he bellowed at an inquisitive dog. “Via, via, son of a whore! Make way for the Americans!” In wild song and in words I could not understand he sent his demented voice, harsh as rattling stones, through the archways and up to the rooftops, and hooted and crowed, and sprayed jubilant globes of spittle through the air. Then I bade him halt and shut up, for at the end of some dark alleyway Rosemarie and Mason were standing in the shadows, and I was conscious of a mechanical racket, basso profundo (one of those mobile generators, it has later occurred to me, which the movie people were forever dragging across the Italian landscape), and the two voices, one husky and male and furious, the other high, placating, touched with chill alarm, both rising up and up in frenzied contest with the roar.

  “I did not, Muffin!” she pleaded.

  “You did, you did!” he yelled. “You hinted, you lousy bitch!”

  “I didn’t mean to, darling. I only meant—”

  “You hinted!”

  “Muffin, darling, please listen—” she implored him.

  “You listen!” he put in. “My sex life is no concern of yours! Like it or lump it, understand?” A dozen of his words went skittering away on the churning din. “—you to know that if I want to get laid—” Chuckety-clack, chuckety-clack. “—and lay anybody, anywhere—”


  I heard them say no more. With baffling simultaneity the flowered oblong of his arm went up to hit her just as the generator ceased its roar, then struck, and in that vacuum which rushed in upon the engine’s final flutter one flat smack of his hand against her face seemed to echo down the alleyway in wave on hurtful wave, then faded, then lay still.

  I drew back for an instant, waiting for some cry or whimper, but I heard no sound at all. So I hustled on (ragtag Saverio, my bedeviled, lustful, gifted Papageno galloping behind me) like a voyeur, ashamed, but undetected.

  Later, at the Bella Vista, sprawled on the bed fully clothed and still unwashed, I was kept fretfully awake for a while by the painting which engulfed one whole panel of the wall. It had been pointed out to me by Windgasser, the Swiss-Italian landlord, a soft-handed youngish man with rosy cheeks and burgeoning dewlaps, honey-tongued, flatulent as his name and, at least at that moment, wholly insufferable, who had greeted me at the door with a cry in English like a song, then with a threatening look and a curse, which revealed a lisp in both languages, chased Saverio away, and led me upstairs babbling good evenings, bon thoirs and guten Abends to his guests and to me obsequious, mystifying amends. “Had I known,” he said. “Had I just known. Ah, but this room will be very compelling. You thee? This was my father’s hotel and his father’s before him. But I’m devvistated. Any friend of Mr. Flagg’s is Fausto Windgasser’s most honored guest. That, thir,” he said pointing to the painting and flinging open the blinds, “That painting is by Ugo Angelucci who—I don’t know if you know it or not—died twenty years ago in this very hotel. It’s his masterpiece.”

  “Thank you,” I said. “Now kindly close the blinds.”

  When he had gone, allowing me, in a depletion of spirit so profound that it threatened sleep, to lie twitching restlessly
on the bed, I found that the empty-faced beautiful woman which was Angelucci’s painting was scrutinizing me with half-closed eyes. She was a vapid, heavy-lidded blonde, presumably in bed but hardly tantalizing, for her lower parts were swaddled in what looked like some impermeable rug and a yard of squeamish lace appeared from nowhere to cover both her breasts. Yet as my eyes became accustomed to the darkness I could tell that the painting, whether Windgasser was aware of it or not, was meant to be naughty; the title beneath in rambling Italian script—”Troubled Sleep“—gave it away, and with a dozing, wondrous sense of discovery I saw that Angelucci, the old rogue, had arranged in artful, subtle lines of chiaroscuro a famished male profile against the woman’s shoulder, while tangled around her naked belly, and concealed there just as in one of those drawings for children where you must always find the hidden duck, a cart, or a horn, were the phantom shapes of two groping, ardent hands. With her budlike lips and stiff neck and arctic air of chastity, the woman generated no more vigor or excitement than those old, dim sketches of Madame du Barry—a fraud, a cheat, and a disappointment—and I remember sinking back in the pillows, thinking of Angelucci and listening, as I began nervously to drowse, to hidden bells and boats far down the slope on the placid sea. Who was Angelucci? I wondered, nodding off. What manner of man was he? And for no reason at all, in fantasy still dwelling upon the gloomy damask Edwardian rooms through which Windgasser had conducted me below—the salone with its elephantine sofas and yellowing stackedup copies of the Illustrated London News and bookcases dusty with Bulwer-Lytton and Fenimore Cooper and Hapsburg memoirs, and the framed photographs, stained and damp with time, of the hotel’s regal visitors (Umberto the First, looking old and sickly, the Duke of Aosta with his pretty family in a box-shaped old Daimler, Queen Margherita in a cloche hat, Ellen Terry, Erich von Stroheim, movie queens and sheiks of the twenties now dead or sunk out of memory)—my mind became a drowsy camphorous collage of antimacassars and dogcarts stuffed with children in pinafores, of croissants and governesses and elegant outings to the blue incomparable sea, where men with goatees sunned themselves, and the air was filled with an extravagant babel of tongues. Oh, for that fragrant, bygone, impossible life! And again, across some exquisite margin of desire and longing that separates waking from sleep, the clownish figure of Angelucci cavorted—a Neapolitan lecher, perhaps, with sticky fingers and a Vandyke beard, artist manque in a land of giants, who came each summer to the Bella Vista to simplify his liver, to paint a bit, to bask in the transcendent light of Hapsburg and Aosta and Savoy. “Vostra Maestà !” I heard his plea across the decades. “Majesty! If I could just paint—” Or, turned humiliatingly away, sidling now toward the lovely English girl with rose-stung cheeks (how rich she must be!): “Excuse me, signorina, but the color of your hair—” Did he die perhaps in this room? In this very bed? Dimly, remotely, the bells from the gulf jangled in my reverie, my eyes seemed to behold once more those fatuous eyes, those ghostly, licentious hands, and now smitten sorrowfully with the sudden knowledge that this maiden resembled someone … someone … I began to pass into oblivion…


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