In the beginning there was Ben, just Ben alone before Laura or Landis or the Spaniard, but before Ben there had been others living where Ben was to live. Living, cooking, eating, and burning lights in the middle of the night and descending and ascending the stairs and coming and going and taking their keys and putting them back again and paying their bills or not paying them and being quiet or noisy and predictable and erratic and walking the roof in spring. Oh, there had been many more and there would be many after, but these did not concern Ben for that was then, and what they had left behind them had already gone down the drain or out the window or between the boards in the floor or into the walls or through the mails, leaving only an oily spot, an oblong stain, a flake of glass, a breath of scent among many scents, both past and present which formed the odor and flavor and steady perfume of the Hotel de l’Avenir. They were long gone and only the pencil mark, and the overturned ink, and the rent in the curtain, and a bent coathanger lingered on to describe them. A scrap of paper, a safety pin, a calendar wedged between the floor and the table leg, a curtain ring. They were no longer where they had been, and now there was Ben.
When Ben first moved in, his friend Hank from the army that came over on the boat with him and went all over Norway with him the summer before when they still had their bonuses and a little cash, was going to move in with him. Not in the same room, of course, because that was unhealthy. A man should never live too close onto another man even if he was a friend—in fact, even less if he was a friend—but into the next room which was vacant. They were going to do their cooking together and share the roof which would make a pleasant balcony in spring, and study together, and go to concerts, and learn French—not like the usual tourists but really get to know the language—and when the Bill ran out and they didn’t have any more money they would be able to support themselves somehow till they felt like quitting and going back home, or whatever they decided they wanted to do afterward.
That was the idea. They were going to pool resources (Ben had a little more money than Hank) and do everything together as near as possible and see what it was all about. That’s the way they figured when they were in Norway, and Ben found the room in this moderate priced hotel (it was six flights up but, what the hell, it was cleaner then most and you can’t expect much for 350 francs a day) and they were about to move in when Hank fell in love.
Well, not exactly. Fell back in love, you might say, with the girl he was in love with all along, all through Scandinavia where he was forever telling Ben how glad he was to get rid of her, get out of the whole affair, to get on that boat and get the mess behind him. (He told Ben the whole history in the course of their trip: how it came about, and how she tricked him, and a whole lot of stuff, some of it true and some of it not, most likely.) He fell back in love with this girl because she sent him a letter saying she was coming over and would he meet her?
Of course, when he got her letter Hank said, to hell with it, and dropped it out the window and forgot about it and only answered because he felt that even if she gave him a raw deal he didn’t want her to think he held anything against her, and when he went to get her the day the boat got in, it was the same way—he only did it out of decency—and he went on planning to move in next to Ben. He even brought his bags up and put his shoes under the bed and his clothes in the closet and it was all settled, but when he went off to the train, Ben took everything out and carried it into his own room and told the woman at the desk his friend wasn’t moving to the hotel, because he knew better.
When Hank came back two nights later he said, “You had a lot of nerve! Christ, if she waves it in my nose I’m not going to say no, but Goddamn it, Ben, you needn’t have given up the room. Now where am I going to stay?” But Ben just said, “Stop shooting off your mouth, pal, and have a beer,” and Hank went off saying, “See what you can do to fix it up about that room,” but Ben didn’t trouble himself.
Once when Ben came in from a walk in the park where he had gotten into the habit of taking bread to the pigeons, he knew that Hank had been there because he had carted off some of his junk. Otherwise, though, he didn’t turn up again till he came to invite Ben to dinner, rather sheepish about it. To dinner with the two of them.
They had a room over by the Sorbonne on a long dark hall that stank of lavatory and a window that looked out on a dark bare court and crazy wallpaper peeling off and no hot water or heat but they kept warm with an alcohol stove and a gas radiator—it was still autumn—and cooked and washed and ate and slept in a corner by the broken lavabo. They seemed to know everyone in the place and there was a crowd that kept coming out and in a while they ate on the top of her trunk with light from a candle stuck in a Chianti bottle. Ben could not see in this girl with brown hair and glasses any of the things that Hank had told him about her, least of all the bitchiness, but he did not think this odd because he was never able to see in people the qualities that other people found in them–another reason for which he felt himself to be set apart from the world–and when Hank saw him to the door, down the narrow steps past the stinking latrine and through the waterstained passage to the entrance the way he might have seen him down the wooden steps and across the grass of an autumn evening in Iowa, across the cricket singing grass in Iowa far away, he just said, “Thanks for the feed, Hank,” and waved his hand.
“Great to see you,” Hank said, “drop around any time any old time you feel like it—Dorothy and I are always here,” (it was the first time he called her by her name and they both winced standing in the chill of autumn beside the sleeping bicycles and a motorbike covered over with canvas) “Dorothy and I are always here.”