Agnes is dead. Killed by a story. All that’s left of her now is this story. It begins on that day, nine months ago, when we first met in the Chicago Public Library. It was cold when we first met. It generally is cold in this city. But it’s colder now, and it’s snowing. The snow is blowing across Lake Michigan, on the gale-force wind I can hear even through the soundproof glass in my picture windows. It’s snowing, but the snow won’t settle, it gets picked up and whirled on its way, and only settles where the wind can’t get at it. I’ve switched off the light, and look out at the illuminated tips of the skyscrapers, at the American flag that gets tugged this way and that by the wind, in the beam of a searchlight, and at the empty streets far below, where, even now, in the middle of the night, the lights change from green to red and red to green, as though nothing had happened, or was happening.
This is where we lived together for a while, Agnes and I, in this apartment. It was our home, though now that Agnes has gone, the place seems strange to me, and impossible. Agnes is just a step away, no more than a thickness of glass, but the windows don’t open.
For about the millionth time, I’m watching the video that Agnes made of the day we went hiking—on Columbus Day. Columbus Day in Hoosier National Forest, it says, on the box and the cassette, in her tidy script, underlined twice with a ruler, like the way we used to underline the answers to our math problems when we were children. I’ve got the sound switched off. The pictures seem so much more real than this darkened apartment. They have a peculiar radiance, the radiance of a great expanse of open country, on an October afternoon. An empty expanse, no town for miles around, no village, not even a farmhouse. Staccato shots, without much variety. A series of fresh starts, attempts to capture the landscape. Sometimes I am able to guess what prompted Agnes to press the record button: a peculiar-shaped cloud, a billboard, a strip of forest in the distance, hard to make out through the wide-angle lens. Once, there’s a pan across to me, driving. I make a face. And then she tries to film herself filming, I suppose: the rearview mirror, and the camera looking into it, and Agnes, barely discernible, behind it. Then once, very briefly, Agnes, driving this time, holding her hand in the way.
The park ranger. He too puts his hand in the way, but unlike Agnes, he does it laughingly. A zoom down to his hands, which are smoothing down a map, pointing to a track that doesn’t show up in the picture. The ranger falls back in his chair, opens a drawer, and pulls out various brochures. He laughs, and holds one up to the camera: How to survive Hoosier National Forest. The image wobbles, and then a hand comes up into shot to take the leaflet. The ranger is speaking all the time, his expression getting more and more serious. The camera turns away from him, and brushes by me on its way. Suddenly there’s forest, a little stand of trees. I’m lying on my back, asleep, perhaps, or just with my eyes shut. The camera moves lower and closer until the picture goes fuzzy, then it pulls back. Then it pans down to my feet, then up to my head again. It stays on my face for a long time, moves in again, but the picture blurs again, and it pulls back.
“No videos?” the guy in the shop with the slicked-back hair asked me when I went down for a six-pack a couple of hours ago. He asked after Agnes. She’s gone, I said, and he smirked back at me.
“They all go,” he said, “don’t worry, there’s lots of pretty women in the world.”
Agnes never liked the guy in the shop, though she couldn’t give a reason why. She just said she was scared of him, and when I laughed at her, she laughed as well. She was scared of him, the way she was scared of windows that didn’t open, or of the droning of the air conditioner at night, or the window cleaners balancing on their platform outside our bedroom window one afternoon. She didn’t like the apartment, the building, or even downtown. At first we laughed about it, then she didn’t talk about it anymore. But I realized her fear was still there, it had gotten so big she couldn’t talk about it anymore. Instead, the more frightened she got, the more she clung to me. To me, of all people.
I was sitting in the Public Library, leafing through bound volumes of the Chicago Tribune, as I’d been doing for days, when I first saw Agnes. It was last April. She took a seat opposite me in the big reading room, probably by chance, because it was pretty full. She had a little foam-rubber cushion with her. On the table in front of her, she laid out a pile of textbooks and a writing pad, two or three pencils, an eraser, and a pocket calculator. When I looked up from my work, our eyes met. She looked down, opened the first of her books, and started reading. I tried to read the titles of her books. She seemed to notice, and pulled them nearer, with the spines facing her.
I was working on a book about American luxury trains, and was just reading about the political debate on whether the army should be called in during the Pullman Strike. I’d gotten rather bogged down in this strike; it wasn’t relevant to my book, I was just fascinated by it. In the course of my work, I’ve always let myself be guided by curiosity, and in this case it had taken me miles away from my subject.
From when Agnes sat down opposite me, I hadn’t been able to concentrate. She wasn’t that striking-looking, slim and not very tall, brown hair thick and down to her shoulders, a pale complexion and no makeup. Only her eyes had something unusual about them, an expressiveness I haven’t often seen.
I couldn’t claim it was love at first sight, but she interested me and took up my thoughts. I kept looking across at her, it was embarrassing almost, but I couldn’t help it. She didn’t respond, never looking up once, but I’m sure she sensed she was being looked at. Finally, she got up and went out. She left her things spread out on the table, and only took her calculator with her. I went out after her, not really knowing why. When I got to the entrance hall, there was no sign of her. I walked out of the building, and sat down on the stairs to smoke a cigarette. It wasn’t cold, but I was shivering anyway, after sitting around for hours in the overheated library. It was four in the afternoon, and the people on the sidewalks were a mixture of tourists and shoppers and a few early office workers.
There was already an intimation of the desolate evening that lay ahead of me. I hardly knew anyone in this city. No one at all, actually. Once or twice I’d fantasized about women’s faces, but I knew enough not to pursue those sorts of feelings; I’d only get hurt. I had several failed relationships behind me, and for the time being, without having come to any sort of conscious decision about it, I was reconciled to being on my own. Even so, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get on with my work as long as that girl was sitting opposite me, so I decided I’d go home.
I stubbed out my cigarette and was just about to get up when she sat down on the steps no more than three feet away from me, with some coffee in a paper cup. She’d spilled a bit of it, and she set the cup down on the stone step, and wiped her fingers with a crumpled tissue. Then she took a pack of cigarettes from her little rucksack, and started fumbling for some matches or a cigarette lighter. I asked her if I might give her a light. She turned to me as though in surprise, but I saw no surprise in her eyes, only something I didn’t understand.
“Yes, please,” she said.
I lit her cigarette for her and another one for myself, and we sat and smoked for a while, not speaking, but half facing each other. Eventually I asked some trivial question, and we started a conversation, about the library, the city, the weather. It wasn’t till she got up that I asked her what her name was. She said she was called Agnes.
“Agnes,” I said, “that’s an unusual name.” “You’re not the first person to say that.”
We went back inside the reading room. Our little conversation had released my tension, and I was able to work again, without having to keep looking across at her. When I did, she looked back at me with a friendly expression, though not smiling. I stayed longer than I’d meant to, and when Agnes finally packed up her things, I asked her in a whisper whether she’d be here again tomorrow. “Yes,” she whispered back, and for the first time she smiled.