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issue 18: may - june 2000 

spanish translation | author's bio

The Louis Agency
Adam Blackwell

Somewhere between Courthouse and Foggy Bottom, Mitch remembered how, three years earlier, almost to the day, his wife had told him she was leaving. At first, as she stood by the sink in the kitchen, she’d given him no reason.
      "It’s not because of anything," she’d said.
      "Then what is it?" he’d said. "What have I done?"
      "Nothing, not a thing."
      "But there must be a reason, Helen."
      "There isn’t," she’d said. "Well, perhaps there is. My desire not to be married exceeds my desire to be married."
      And then it had been like several trees falling on him all at once, and he’d walked out of the kitchen and curled up in a recently reupholstered antique chair. While he listened to his wife pack a suitcase upstairs, he came to know everything about that chair—the distance between the different kinds of decorative flower, the few patches where the texture was unusually rough.
      As the train pulled into Roslyn, Mitch looked at his watch. It was 22 minutes to nine. He was now three minutes away from Foggy Bottom and, he worked out, about eight minutes away from 17th and G. He relaxed and took occasional peeks at the legs of the girl sitting next to him. She doesn’t need an agency to get herself a date, he thought.
      Mitch looked up at a sketch of a wedding cake, in the middle of a circle of red letters. He was disappointed, having expected something more modern—connected computers, perhaps, or all lower-case letters. Matches arranged with science: that’s what the ad had said.
      Mitch walked in and, because The Louis Agency was the only business advertised outside, was surprised to note that the building layout revealed the names of many companies. The buttons to the elevator were flat on the wall, and they lit up on the lightest of touches. Inside the elevator, which smelled a lot like a new car, Mitch breathed deeply.
      To the right of the door to The Louis Agency, Mitch noticed a slot for a credit-card key. He knocked, half expecting the door to open automatically. It didn’t, but, within seconds, was opened by a man who reminded Mitch of a butler.
      "I have a nine o’clock appointment."
      "Very good," said the man ushering Mitch in, "be so good as to wait, and the Master will be with you shortly."
      "The Master?"
"Yes, Dr. Louis. He won’t keep you long."
      The man returned to his desk and began writing.
      When, for nearly 15 minutes, he didn’t look up, Mitch asked if there were forms to be filled out.
      "No forms," said the man behind the desk, "the Master will handle it all directly."
      "I just meant something with my name and phone number."
      "That would be helpful."
      The man handed Mitch a large piece of paper, on which, typed at the top, were the words "Name" and "Phone."
      "That’s it?" said Mitch, when he’d filled it out.
      "The Master will be with you presently, Sir."
      Mitch looked at his watch and noticed it was already five past nine.
      At 9:18, he told the man behind the desk that he was on "something of a schedule," and asked how much longer he might expect to wait.
      "Only a few moments," the man said, smiling.
      At 9:45, Mitch asked if there were a phone he could use. He called his office and told them he had the flu, but hoped to be in by 11:00.
      At noon exactly, the man behind the desk got up, said he was going to lunch, and told Mitch that the Master would no doubt appear before the lunch break ended.
      It was 1:15 when the man returned, but he didn’t seem in the least surprised to see that Mitch was still waiting. He put the remains of a Subway sandwich in the fridge, picked up the phone, and said "Yes." He then told Mitch to "go on in."
      Mitch, all traces of civility gone from his face, entered the Master’s office. In it, he saw a large mahogany desk, on which there were several fountain pens, one jar each of blue and black ink, a spiral notebook, a small pile of blank paper, and a typewriter. Behind all this sat a completely bald man in his 70s, who was in the process of adjusting his hearing-aid.
      Before Mitch could complain about the wait, the old man yanked the aid from around his neck and slammed it three times on the desk.
      "Strange," he shouted, putting it back on, "it’s supposed to . . ." And then there was a smile and, in a far more reasonable voice, he said, "That’s better. I’m Dr. Louis."
      "I’ve been waiting—" Mitch said.
      "I have no wish to be coy," said Dr. Louis. "It was all to see if you were serious or not."
"Serious? About what?"
      "About using our services, about finding a woman."
      "But why would I have come here if I wasn’t?"
"For fun?" said Dr. Louis. "I don’t know, and I don’t see why I should guess. Now I’m going to ask you a few questions."
      "How long—?"
      "If you were going to decorate your home entirely with statues of frogs, would you prefer that they were a) all green, b) all white, or c) some green and some white?"
      "What are you talking about?"
      "Answer the question."
      "I thought you were going to match me with someone scientifically. That’s what your ad said. Where are your computers?"
      "Answer the question."
      "All green?"
      "Don’t say it just to please me—because you think the next question will be different—will be a real one." Dr. Louis used four contemptuous fingers to indicate quotes around the real. "Answer truthfully."
      "Fine. All green. White frogs are tacky."
      "If you had to exterminate all the members of one of the following religious groups, which would it be? a) Quakers? b) a West Indian cargo cult? c) Catholics?"
      "This is ridiculous."
      "Answer the question."
      "I wouldn’t any of them, it’s bad taste."
      "Thank-you for coming, there will be no charge."
      "We’re very busy here."
      "If you and two monkeys were marooned on—"
      "Oh enough!"
      "Answer the—"
      "No, this is crazy, you’re out of your mind. I came here because you seemed to be on top of things. I mean I don’t know if I believed it—scientific matches and all—but I figured, why not—why not check it out? Perhaps they do have an edge. And if they make the matches themselves, then I’m spared the humiliation of having to choose—or waiting to be chosen by someone else. But this is quackery, I mean where are your computers? This isn’t science."
      "Oh it’s not, is it?"
      "No! This office is a relic. I mean look at it, it’s right out of the 70s."
      "And of course there was no science in the 70s."
      "I didn’t say that, but I’ll laugh if you tell me that this is—I mean you can’t expect me to believe—"
      "What you believe isn’t of the slightest importance to me," said Dr. Louis, getting up and walking to the office’s lone window. "I will tell you what we do here, I will tell you that it works, and you can think whatever you want: it will change nothing."
      "Let me finish. The system we use here is the result of years of research—research and failure—primarily failure, yes. We have conducted hundreds, perhaps thousands, of experiments. We have mailed out countless questionnaires to couples who’ve been married for over 15 years, conducted interviews and follow-up interviews, and reviewed their answers meticulously. From those, we have generated questions, which we have asked to many, many young people—young people like yourself—whom we’ve then matched and observed. We have a file of all of them, in some cases a video record, which we obtained through using hidden cameras on dates. It’s not been easy, I’ll not deny we’ve had our setbacks, sometimes—and these were, you’ll appreciate, by far the most depressing—when we thought we’d got it all sorted out. A few years ago, we had a set of questions that, for nine months, produced only successful matches. Then, in the tenth, it fell apart, and we had to go back to our research. Combing through all the questions, wondering which one or ones had let us down—uncovering the reason that one of our predictions had been flawed."
      "And you keep all these files by hand?"
      "We do, yes, though that’s hardly important. I happen not to like computers."
      "But nowadays if you want to be really scientific—"
      "What on earth," said Dr. Louis, rubbing furiously at his smooth, bald head, "do computers have to do with science?"
      "A lot—"
      "Nothing! Science is not technology. Science isn’t using faster and faster machines. If I wanted to use a computer, I would, but I don’t, and my enterprise isn’t one iota less scientific because of it. Science is methodology, and that’s all it is. It’s forming a hypothesis, trying it out, having the courage to tear it down when it’s proved false. It’s keeping going ’til you’ve got one that lasts. Which is precisely where we are with these questions. There are 17 of them, and our experience of the last three years shows us that if there are two people who are serious—who answer them all the same way—then they will be compatible."
      "Like that can be measured, I mean how do you know?"
      "By the fact they get married and live with each other for the rest of their lives. By the fact that they—many of them at any rate—send us postcards telling us how much they’re in love. Hold on."
      Dr. Louis walked over to a wide filing cabinet, which stood by the wall opposite the window. He pulled out a folder and, from that, dumped about 30 postcards onto his desk. The pictures were highly generic (people-less beaches at sunset), and Mitch’s attention was drawn to the one card that had landed face up. It had been scrawled on with a red felt-tip pen, in what looked very much like a small child’s handwriting. "Thanks to you, Master," it read, "I walk on this great beach with a woman I adore."
      "You see?" said Dr. Louis.
      Mitch was about to say something about the childish handwriting, but instead asked the old man about the "people you set up who don’t work out."
      "A thing of the past," Dr. Louis said, more calm now, and sitting. "Since 1997, we’ve had only successes—we’re batting 1,000!"
      "So what happens if one match goes awry? If one of these couples you set up decide it’s not for them?"
      "Then our system would be flawed, and we’d have to start over."
      Mitch looked out the window and remembered all the frozen pizzas he’d microwaved, then balanced on his knee in the antique chair; he figured he’d got nothing to lose.
      "Ok," he said.
      Dr. Louis then finished the question about the monkeys and, like he would to the next 14 questions as well, Mitch answered without protest. After the last one, Dr. Louis returned to the filing cabinet which, Mitch thought, must one day have been a card catalogue.
      "There are two," Dr. Louis said. "Two women who answered in an identical way to you. But one’s from three years ago, and the last time we phoned her, her line was disconnected. So I’ll give you Jemma, she was in here last week."
      He handed Mitch a piece of paper the size and shape of a business card. On it was a penciled-in name: Jemma Hoppenfish. Mitch imagined a tall, awkward woman with a tattoo of a small, gray carp on her left cheek.
      "I’ll have her phone you," said Dr. Louis, sitting down again.
      "She’ll phone me?"
      "Yes, it’s part of the system. She’ll call you tonight."
      "Then what?"
      "Talk to her."
      "But what should I say?"
      "I’m sorry, this isn’t part of the service."
      Dr. Louis then rose and extended his hand for Mitch to shake.
      "As far as money—" Mitch said, releasing the old man’s hand.
      "You pay outside. One hundred dollars."
      "If it doesn’t work out, I assume I get a refund."
      "You would, yes," Dr. Louis said, fiddling once more with his hearing-aid. "But, as I say, it’s never happened!"
      The man who reminded Mitch of a butler was no longer at his desk. The Subway sandwich, though, had been taken out of the fridge and was lying, with a cup of half-drunk coffee, near a pile of forms. Mitch decided that he’d better hurry on to work. So he wrote out a check and left it on top of the sandwich.
      It was raining outside, and, after stepping out of the elevator, Mitch looked in his briefcase for something to put over his head. There was nothing and, just as he was about to walk into the rain, he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was the butler, panting, sucking in air.
      "I wanted to encourage you . . ." he said, still struggling for breath. "Encourage you to make an effort. For the Master’s sake."
      "What do you mean an effort?"
      "He’s sick, you know. Cancer. It would crush him if he had to start all over again."
      "I’ll do my best."
      "I hope you mean that."
      "I do," Mitch said. "But that’s as far as it goes. And if you’re saying that even if I don’t like this Jemma Fish girl . . . I mean if you’re telling me I should keep going out with her, possibly marry her—all because of the precarious state of your old friend’s health—"
      "I don’t think we could ask that of you, no."
      "Well?" said Mitch, looking the butler right in the eyes.
      "Just if things don’t work out—and I assure you, I have every confidence they will—but if they don’t, you could imply you lost faith in the system and never gave it a try—didn’t answer the phone when she called kind of thing. I’m going to say the same to Jemma when I speak to her this afternoon."
      "I can’t believe this."
      "The check, you mean, you’re concerned about the check?"
      "Because we don’t cash it, you know, for three months. You phone before then and tell me it’s a no-go, I tear it up while you’re on the line."
      "And tell that Master guy I was too chicken to go through with it."
      "More or less, yes."
      Mitch imagined an awkward woman with a fish tattoo walking, a full suitcase in her hand, out of his home to a waiting cab. But a thousand frozen pizzas made him bold, and, as the rain outside fell a little harder, he said, "All right my man, what have I got to lose?"
      That this was something more than a rhetorical question hit Mitch only as he took two beef burritos out of the microwave. As he sat in the antique chair, with a fork in one hand and a TV remote in the other, he stared at his phone and willed it not to ring. For the first time in months, this stage of his post-work ritual (which would later include a hot bath and bourbon) struck him as something that shouldn’t be given up lightly.
      Mitch watched smiling people in commercials and thought of some of the fiercest arguments he and Helen had ever had. He missed the intimacy that had accompanied these, and it occurred to him that every night he stayed home was an attempt to recreate it. Because, during the divorce and its aftermath, Mitch had remained amicable at work, his colleagues had never tired of telling him how sorry they felt for him. In these conversations also, there was an intimacy; each reminded Mitch that he and Helen had once been something, had played the only roles in their bizarre, little story.
      The commercials ended and, instantly, Mitch was overcome by the feeling he’d had when Helen was upstairs packing. He could think of it only as an emptiness, but one so vast that it troubled his breathing. He got up out of the chair, switched off the television, and stood absolutely still until, nearly half an hour later, the phone rang. His mind was filled with frogs and monkeys and Quakers. As he picked up the receiver, they faded and were replaced by a single thought—that every relationship was a kind of science. This is what Mitch was pondering when the voice on the other end said hello.

2000 Adam Blackwell
spanish translation

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author's bio

Adam Blackwell is presently working on a PhD in English at the University of Utah where he teaches creative writing. He started off in playwriting and cites his most exotic teaching job as teaching Theatre History to students in Turkmenistan. His most successful play was Blind Dates, which, among other things, was a finalist in the Siena International Plays Contest. He just finished a draft of a new play, based on "The Louis Agency" and is currently working on a novel, Flash Over, about a boy who gets burned in the Bradford Stadium fire. Contact the author at:ACBlack123@aol.com
navigation:                         barcelona review #18                     may - june 2000
-Fiction Jess Mowry - One Way
Richard Weems - Curbside Mailboxes
Adam Blackwell - The Louis Agency
Deirdre Maultsaid - Puppy Dogs' Tails
Javier Calvo - Ned Flanders
-Poetry Dolors Miquel - Two Poems
-Article May and June in Barcelona
-Quiz William Faulkner
Answers to Jorge Luis Borges Quiz
-Regular Features Book Reviews
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