So expert has he become in this role that the transition from Ezra Pound's cantos to the bed is made as simply and naturally as a modulation from one key to another; in fact, if it were not made there would be a discord, which is what happens now and then when he makes a mistake as regards those nitwits whom he refers to as "push overs." Naturally, constituted as he is, it is with reluctance that he refers to these fatal errors of judgment. But when he does bring himself to confess to an error of this kind it is with absolute frankness; in fact, he seems to derive a perverse pleasure in dwelling upon his inaptitude. There is one woman, for example, whom he has been trying to make for almost ten years now – first in America, and finally here in Paris. It is the only person of the opposite sex with whom he has a cordial, friendly relationship. They seem not only to like each other, but to understand each other. At first it seemed to me that if he could really make this creature his problem might be solved. All the elements for a successful union were there – except the fundamental one. Bessie was almost as unusual in her way as himself. She had as little concern about giving herself to a man as she has about the dessert which follows the meal. Usually she singled out the object of her choice and made the proposition herself. She was not bad looking, nor could one say that she was good-looking either. She had a fine body, that was the chief thing – and she liked it, as they say.
They were so chummy, these two, that sometimes, in order to gratify her curiosity (and also in the vain hope of inspiring her by his prowess), Van Norden would arrange to hide her in his closet during one of his seances. After it was over Bessie would emerge from her hiding place and they would discuss the matter casually, that is to say, with an almost total indifference to everything except "technique." Technique was one of her favorite terms, at least in those discussions which I was privileged to enjoy. "What's wrong with my technique?" he would say. And Bessie would answer: "You're too crude. If you ever expect to make me you've got to become more subtle."
There was such a perfect understanding between them, as I say, that often when I called for Van Norden at one-thirty, I would find Bessie sitting on the bed, the covers thrown back and Van Norden inviting her to stroke his penis… "just a few silken strokes," he would say, "so as I'll have the courage to get up." Or else he would urge her to blow on it, or failing that, he would grab hold of himself and shake it like a dinner bell, the two of them laughing fit to die. "I'll never make this bitch," he would say. "She has no respect for me. That's what I get for taking her into my confidence." And then abruptly he might add: "What do you make of that blonde I showed you yesterday?" Talking to Bessie, of course. And Bessie would jeer at him, telling him he had no taste.
"Aw, don't give me that line," he would say. And then playfully, perhaps for the thousandth time, because by now it had become a standing joke between them – "Listen, Bessie, what about a quick lay? Just one little lay… no." And when this had passed off in the usual manner he would add, in the same tone: "Well, what about him? Why don't you give him a lay?"
The whole point about Bessie was that she couldn't, or just wouldn't, regard herself as a lay. She talked about passion, as if it were a brand new word. She was passionate about things, even a little thing like a lay. She had to put her soul into it.
"I get passionate too sometimes," Van Norden would say.
"Oh, you," says Bessie. "You're just a worn out satyr. You don't know the meaning of passion. When you get an erection you think you're passionate."
"All right, maybe it's not passion… but you can't get passionate without having an erection, that's true isn't it?"
All this about Bessie, and the other women whom he drags to his rooms day in and out, occupies my thoughts as we walk to the restaurant. I have adjusted myself so well to his monologues that without interrupting my own reveries I make whatever comment is required automatically, the moment I hear his voice die out. It is a duet, and like most duets moreover in that one listens attentively only for the signal which announces the advent of one's own voice. As it is his night off, and as I have promised to keep him company, I have already dulled myself to his queries. I know that before the evening is over I shall be thoroughly exhausted; if I am lucky, that is, if I can worm a few francs out of him on some pretext or other, I will duck him the moment he goes to the toilet.
But he knows my propensity for slipping away, and, instead of being insulted, he simply provides against the possibility by guarding his sous. If I ask him for money to buy cigarettes he insists on going with me to purchase them. He will not be left alone, not for a second. Even when he has succeeded in grabbing off a woman, even then he is terrified to be left alone with her. If it were possible he would have me sit in the room while he puts on the performance. It would be like asking me to wait while he took a shave.
On his night off Van Norden generally manages to have at least fifty francs in his pocket, a circumstance which does not prevent him from making a touch whenever he encounters a prospect. "Hello," he says, "give me twenty francs… I need it." He has a way of looking panic stricken at the same time. And if he meets with a rebuff he becomes insulting.
"Well, you can buy a drink at least." And when he gets his drink he says more graciously – "Listen give me five francs then… give me two francs…" We go from bar to bar looking for a little excitement and always accumulating a few more francs.
At the Coupole we stumble into a drunk from the newspaper. One of the upstairs guys. There's just been an accident at the office, he informs us. One of the proofreaders fell down the elevator shaft. Not expected to live.
At first Van Norden is shocked, deeply shocked. But when he learns that it was Peckover, the Englishman, he looks relieved. "The poor bastard," he says, "he's better off dead than alive. He just got his false teeth the other day too…"
The allusion to the false teeth moves the man upstairs to tears. He relates in a slobbery way a little incident connected with the accident. He is upset about it, more upset about this little incident than about the catastrophe itself. It seems that Peckover, when he hit the bottom of the shaft, regained consciousness before anyone could reach him. Despite the fact that his legs were broken and his ribs busted, he had managed to rise to all fours and grope about for his false teeth. In the ambulance he was crying out in his delirium for the teeth he had lost. The incident was pathetic and ludicrous at the same time. The guy from upstairs hardly knew whether to laugh or to weep as he related it. It was a delicate moment because with a drunk like that, one false move and he'd crash a bottle over your skull. He had never been particularly friendly with Peckover – as a matter of fact, he had scarcely ever set foot in the proofreading department: there was an invisible wall like between the guys upstairs and the guys down below. But now, since he had felt the touch of death, he wanted to display his comradeship. He wanted to weep, if possible, to show that he was a regular guy. And Joe and I, who knew Peckover well and who knew also that he wasn't worth a good goddamn, even a few tears, we felt annoyed with this drunken sentimentality. We wanted to tell him so too, but with a guy like that you can't afford to be honest; you have to buy a wreath and go to the funeral and pretend that you're miserable. And you have to congratulate him too for the delicate obituary he's written. He'll be carrying his delicate little obituary around with him for months, praising the shit out of himself for the way he handled the situation. We felt all that, Joe and I. without saying a word to each other. We just stood there and listened with a murderous, silent contempt. And as soon as we could break away we did so; we left him there at the bar blubbering to himself over his Pernod.