|The Louis Agency
by 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,
shed given him no reason.
"Its not because of anything,"
"Then what is it?" hed said.
"What have I done?"
"Nothing, not a thing."
"But there must be a reason, Helen."
"There isnt," shed said.
"Well, perhaps there is. My desire not to be married exceeds my desire to be
And then it had been like several trees falling on him
all at once, and hed 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 chairthe 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 doesnt 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
modernconnected computers, perhaps, or all lower-case letters. Matches arranged
with science: thats 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 didnt, but, within seconds, was opened by a man who reminded Mitch
of a butler.
"I have a nine oclock appointment."
"Very good," said the man ushering Mitch in,
"be so good as to wait, and the Master will be with you shortly."
"Yes, Dr. Louis. He wont keep you long."
The man returned to his desk and began writing.
When, for nearly 15 minutes, he didnt 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
"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."
"Thats it?" said Mitch, when hed
filled it out.
"The Master will be with you presently,
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 didnt
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 Masters 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, "its supposed to . . ." And then there was a smile and, in
a far more reasonable voice, he said, "Thats better. Im Dr. Louis."
"Ive been waiting" Mitch
"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
"But why would I have come here if I
"For fun?" said Dr. Louis. "I dont know, and I dont see why I
should guess. Now Im going to ask you a few questions."
"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. Thats what your ad said. Where are your computers?"
"Answer the question."
"Dont say it just to please mebecause
you think the next question will be differentwill be a real one." Dr.
Louis used four contemptuous fingers to indicate quotes around the real.
"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 wouldnt any of them, its bad
"Thank-you for coming, there will be no
"Were very busy here."
"If you and two monkeys were marooned
"No, this is crazy, youre out of your mind.
I came here because you seemed to be on top of things. I mean I dont know if I
believed itscientific matches and allbut I figured, why notwhy not check
it out? Perhaps they do have an edge. And if they make the matches themselves, then
Im spared the humiliation of having to chooseor waiting to be chosen by
someone else. But this is quackery, I mean where are your computers? This isnt
"Oh its not, is it?"
"No! This office is a relic. I mean look
at it, its right out of the 70s."
"And of course there was no science in the
"I didnt say that, but Ill laugh if
you tell me that this isI mean you cant expect me to believe"
"What you believe isnt of the slightest
importance to me," said Dr. Louis, getting up and walking to the offices 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 researchresearch and failureprimarily failure, yes. We have
conducted hundreds, perhaps thousands, of experiments. We have mailed out countless
questionnaires to couples whove 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 peopleyoung people like
yourselfwhom weve 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.
Its not been easy, Ill not deny weve had our setbacks, sometimesand
these were, youll appreciate, by far the most depressingwhen we thought
wed 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 downuncovering the reason that one of our predictions had been
"And you keep all these files by hand?"
"We do, yes, though thats hardly important.
I happen not to like computers."
"But nowadays if you want to be really
"What on earth," said Dr. Louis, rubbing
furiously at his smooth, bald head, "do computers have to do with science?"
"Nothing! Science is not technology.
Science isnt using faster and faster machines. If I wanted to use a computer, I
would, but I dont, and my enterprise isnt one iota less scientific because of
it. Science is methodology, and thats all it is. Its forming a
hypothesis, trying it out, having the courage to tear it down when its proved false.
Its keeping going til youve 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 seriouswho answer them all the
same waythen they will be compatible."
"Like that can be measured, I mean how do you
"By the fact they get married and live with each
other for the rest of their lives. By the fact that theymany of them at any
ratesend us postcards telling us how much theyre 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 Mitchs 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
childs 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 dont
"A thing of the past," Dr. Louis said, more
calm now, and sitting. "Since 1997, weve had only successeswere batting
"So what happens if one match goes awry? If one
of these couples you set up decide its not for them?"
"Then our system would be flawed, and wed
have to start over."
Mitch looked out the window and remembered all the
frozen pizzas hed microwaved, then balanced on his knee in the antique chair; he
figured hed 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 ones from three years ago, and
the last time we phoned her, her line was disconnected. So Ill 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.
"Ill have her phone you," said Dr.
Louis, sitting down again.
"Shell phone me?"
"Yes, its part of the system. Shell
call you tonight."
"Talk to her."
"But what should I say?"
"Im sorry, this isnt part of the
Dr. Louis then rose and extended his hand for Mitch to
"As far as money" Mitch said,
releasing the old mans hand.
"You pay outside. One hundred dollars."
"If it doesnt work out, I assume I get a
"You would, yes," Dr. Louis said, fiddling
once more with his hearing-aid. "But, as I say, its 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 hed 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 Masters
"What do you mean an effort?"
"Hes sick, you know. Cancer. It would crush
him if he had to start all over again."
"Ill do my best."
"I hope you mean that."
"I do," Mitch said. "But thats as
far as it goes. And if youre saying that even if I dont like this Jemma Fish
girl . . . I mean if youre telling me I should keep going out with her, possibly marry
herall because of the precarious state of your old friends health"
"I dont think we could ask that of you,
"Well?" said Mitch, looking the butler right
in the eyes.
"Just if things dont work
outand I assure you, I have every confidence they willbut if they dont,
you could imply you lost faith in the system and never gave it a trydidnt
answer the phone when she called kind of thing. Im going to say the same to Jemma
when I speak to her this afternoon."
"I cant believe this."
"The check, you mean, youre concerned about
"Because we dont cash it, you know, for
three months. You phone before then and tell me its a no-go, I tear it up while
youre 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 shouldnt 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,
The commercials ended and, instantly, Mitch was
overcome by the feeling hed 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
thoughtthat every relationship was a kind of science. This is what Mitch was
pondering when the voice on the other end said hello.