Her mother had given her the name Agnes, believing that a good-looking woman was even more striking when her name was a homely one. Her mother was named Cyrena and was beautiful to match but had always imagined her life would have been more interesting, that she herself would have had a more dramatic, arresting effect on the world and not ended up in Cassell, Iowa, if she had been named Enid or Hagar or Maude. And so she named her first daughter Agnes, and when Agnes turned out not to be attractive at all but puffy and prone to a rash between her eyebrows, her hair a flat and bilious hue, her mother backpedaled and named her second daughter Linnea Elise (who turned out to be a lovely, sleepy child with excellent bones, a sweet, full mouth and a rubbery mole above her lip which later in life could be removed without difficulty, everyone was sure).
Agnes herself had always been a bit at odds with her name. There was a brief period in her life, in her mid-twenties, when she had tried to pass it off as French – she had put in the accent grave and encouraged people to call her ‘On-yez’. This was when she was living in New York City and often getting together with her cousin, a painter who took her to parties in TriBeCa lofts or at beach houses or at mansions on lakes upstate. She would meet a lot of not very bright rich people who found the pronunciation of her name intriguing. It was the rest of her they were unclear on. ‘On-yez, where are you from, dear?’ asked a black-slacked, frosted-haired woman whose skin was papery and melanomic with suntan. ‘Originally.’ She eyed Agnes’s outfit as if it might be what in fact it was: a couple of blue things purchased in a department store in Cedar Rapids.
‘Where am I from?’ Agnes said it softly. ‘Iowa.’ She had a tendency not to speak up.
‘Where?’ the woman scowled, bewildered.
‘Iowa,’ Agnes repeated loudly.
The woman in black touched Agnes’s wrist and leaned in confidentially. She moved her mouth in a concerned and exaggerated way, like an exercise. ‘No, dear,’ she said. ‘Here we say O-hi-o.’
That had been in Agnes’s mishmash decade, after college. She had lived improvisationally then, getting this job or that, in restaurants or offices, taking a class or two, not thinking too far ahead, negotiating the precariousness and subway flus and scrimping for an occasional facial or a play. Such a life required much expendable self-esteem. It engaged gross quantities of hope and despair and set them wildly side by side, like a Third World country of the heart. Her days grew messy with contradictions. When she went for walks, for her health, cinders would spot her cheeks, and soot would settle in the furled leaf of each ear. Her shoes became unspeakable. Her blouses darkened in a breeze, and a blast of bus exhaust might linger in her hair for hours. Finally her old asthma returned and, with a hacking, incessant cough, she gave up. ‘I feel like I’ve got five years to live,’ she told people, ‘so I’m moving back to Iowa so that it’ll feel like fifty.’
When she packed up to leave she knew she was saying goodbye to something important, which was not that bad in a way because it meant that at least you had said hello to it to begin with, which most people in Cassell, Iowa, could not claim to have done.
A year later she married a boyish man twelve years her senior, a Cassell realtor named Joe, and together they bought a house on a little street called Birch Court. She taught a night class at the Arts Hall and did volunteer work on the Transportation Commission in town. It was life like a glass of water: half-full, half-empty, half-full; oops, half-empty. Over the next six years she and Joe tried to have a baby, but one night at dinner, looking at each other in a lonely way over the meatloaf, they realized with a shock that they probably never would. Nonetheless they still tried, vandalizing what romance was left in their marriage.
‘Honey,’ she would whisper at night when he was reading under the reading lamp, and she had already put her book away and curled toward him, wanting to place the red scarf over the lampshade but knowing it would annoy him and so not doing it. ‘Do you want to make love? It would be a good time of month.’
And Joe would groan. Or he would yawn. Or he would already be asleep. Once, after a long hard day, he said, ‘I’m sorry, Agnes. I’m just not in the mood.’
She grew exasperated. ‘You think I’m in the mood?’ she said. ‘I don’t want to do this any more than you do.’ He looked at her in a disgusted way, and it was two weeks after that they had the identical sad dawning over the meat loaf.
At the Arts Hall, formerly the Grange Hall, Agnes taught the Great Books class but taught it loosely, with cookies. She let her students turn in poems and plays and stories that they themselves had written; she let them use the class as their own little time to be creative. Someone once even brought in a sculpture: an electric one with blinking lights.
After class she sometimes met with students individually. She recommended things for them to write about or read or consider in their next project. She smiled and asked if things were going well in their lives. She took an interest.
‘You should be stricter,’ said Willard Stauffbacher, the head of the Instruction Department. He was a short, balding musician who taped to his door pictures of famous people he thought he looked like. Every third Monday he conducted the monthly departmental meeting – aptly named, Agnes liked to joke, since she did indeed depart mental. ‘Just because it’s a night course doesn’t mean you shouldn’t impart standards,’ Stauffbacher said in a scolding way. ‘If it’s piffle, use the word piffle. It’s meaningless? Write meaningless at the top of every page.’ He had once taught at an elementary school and once at a prison. ‘I feel like I do all the real work around here,’ he added. He had posted near his office a sign that read:
RULES FOR THE MUSIC ROOM
i will stay in my seat unless (sic) permission to move
i will sit up straight
i will listen to directions
i will not bother my neighbor
i will not talk when mr stauffbacher is talking
i will be polite to others
i will sing as well as i can
Agnes stayed after one night with Christa, the only black student in her class. She liked Christa a lot – Christa was smart and funny, and Agnes would sometimes stay late with her to chat. Tonight Agnes had decided to talk Christa out of writing about vampires all the time.
‘Why don’t you write about that thing you told me about that time?’ Agnes suggested.
Christa looked at her skeptically. ‘What thing?’
‘The time in your childhood, during the Chicago riots, walking with your mother through the police barricades.’
‘Man, I lived that. Why should I want to write about it?’
Agnes sighed. Maybe Christa had a point. ‘It’s just I’m no help to you with this vampire stuff,’ Agnes said. ‘It’s formulaic genre fiction.’
‘You would be of more help to me with my childhood ?’
‘Well, with more serious stories, yes.’
Christa stood up, perturbed. She grabbed her paperback. ‘You with all your Alice Walker and Zora Hurston. I’m not interested in that anymore. I’ve done that already. I read those books years ago.’
‘Christa, please don’t be annoyed.’ Please do not talk when Mr Stauffbacher is talking.
‘You’ve got this agenda for me.’
‘Really, I don’t at all,’ said Agnes. ‘It’s just that – you know what it is? It’s that I’m sick of these vampires. They’re so roaming and repeating.’
‘If you were black, what you’re saying might have a different spin. But the fact is you’re not,’ Christa said, and picked up her coat and strode out – though ten seconds later she gamely stuck her head back in and said, ‘See you next week.’
‘We need a visiting writer who’s black,’ Agnes said in the next depart mental meeting. ‘We’ve never had one.’
They were looking at their budget, and the readings this year were pitted against Dance Instruction, a program headed up by a redhead named Evergreen.
‘The Joffrey is just so much central casting,’ said Evergreen, apropos of nothing. As a vacuum cleaner can start to pull up the actual thread of a carpet, her brains had been sucked dry by too much yoga. No one paid much attention to her.
‘Perhaps we can get Harold Raferson in Chicago,’ Agnes suggested.
‘We’ve already got somebody for the visiting writer slot,’ said Stauffbacher coyly. ‘An Afrikaner from Johannesburg.’
‘What?’ said Agnes. Was he serious? Even Evergreen barked out a laugh.
‘W.S. Beyerbach. The university’s bringing him in. We pay our four hundred dollars and we get him out here for a day and a half.’
‘Who?’ asked Evergreen.
‘This has already been decided?’ asked Agnes.
‘Yup.’ Stauffbacher looked accusingly at Agnes. ‘I’ve done a lot of work to arrange for this. I’ve done all the work!’
‘Do less,’ said Evergreen.
When Agnes had first met Joe, they’d fallen madly upon each other. They’d kissed in restaurants; they’d groped under coats at the movies. At his little house they’d made love on the porch, or the landing of the staircase, against the wall in the hall, by the door to the attic, filled with too much desire to make their way to a real room.
Now they struggled self-consciously for atmosphere, something they’d never needed before. She prepared the bedroom carefully. She played quiet music and concentrated. She lit candles – as if she were in church praying for the deceased. She donned a filmy gown. She took hot baths and entered the bedroom in nothing but a towel, a wild fish-like creature of moist, perfumed heat. In the nightstand drawer she still kept the charts a doctor once told her to keep, still placed an X on any date she and Joe actually had sex. But she could never show these to her doctor, not now. It pained Agnes to see them. She and Joe looked like worse than bad shots. She and Joe looked like idiots. She and Joe looked dead.
Frantic candlelight flickered on the ceiling like a puppet show. While she waited for Joe to come out of the bathroom, Agnes lay back on the bed and thought about her week, the stupid politics of it – the Arts Hall, the Transportation Commission, all those loud, smacking collisions of public good and private power. She was not very good at politics. Once, before he was elected, she had gone to a rally for Bill Clinton, but when he was late and had kept the crowd waiting for over an hour, and when the sun got hot and bees began landing on people’s heads, when everyone’s feet hurt, and tiny children began to cry, and a state assemblyman stepped forward to announce that Clinton had stopped at a Dairy Queen in Des Moines and that was why he was late – Dairy Queen! – she had grown angry and resentful and apolitical in her own sweet-starved thirst and she’d joined in with some other people who had started to chant, ‘Do us a favor, tell us the flavor.’
Through college she had been a feminist – more or less. She shaved her legs, but just not often enough, she liked to say. She signed day-care petitions and petitions for Planned Parenthood. And although she had never been very socially aggressive with men, she felt strongly that she knew the difference between feminism and Sadie Hawkins Day – which some people, she believed, did not.
‘Agnes, are we out of toothpaste or is this it? – Oh, OK, I see.’
And once, in New York, she had quixotically organized the ladies’-room line at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. Because the play was going to start any minute, and the line was still twenty women long, she had got six women to walk across the lobby with her to the men’s room. ‘Everybody out of there?’ she’d called in timidly, allowing the men to finish up first, which took a while, especially with other men coming up impatiently and cutting ahead in line. Later at intermission, she saw how it should have been done. Two elderly black women, with greater expertise in civil rights, stepped very confidently into the men’s room and called out, ‘Don’t mind us, boys. We’re coming on in. Don’t mind us.’
‘Are you OK?’ asked Joe, smiling. He was already beside her. He smelled sweet, of soap and minty teeth, like a child.
‘I think so,’ she said and turned toward him in the bordello light of their room. He had never acquired the look of maturity-anchored-in-sorrow that burnished so many men’s faces. His own sadnesses in life – a childhood of beatings, a dying mother – were like quicksand, and he had to stay away from them entirely. He permitted no unhappy memories spoken aloud. He stuck with the same mild cheerfulness he’d honed successfully as a boy, and it made him seem fatuous – even, she knew, to himself. Probably it hurt his business a little.
‘Your mind’s wandering,’ he said, letting his own eyes close.
‘I know.’ She yawned, moved her legs onto his for warmth, and in this way, with the candles burning into their tins, she and Joe fell asleep.
Spring arrived, cool and humid. Bulbs cracked and sprouted, shot up their green periscopes, and on April 1 the Arts Hall offered a joke lecture by T.S. Eliot, visiting scholar. ‘The Crudest Month’, it was called. ‘You don’t find it funny?’ asked Stauffbacher.
April 4 was the reception for W.S. Beyerbach. There was to be a dinner afterward, and then Beyerbach was to visit Agnes’s Great Books class. She had assigned his second collection of sonnets, which were spare and elegant, with sighing and diaphanous politics. The next afternoon there was to be a reading.
Agnes had not been invited to the dinner, and when she asked about this, in a mildly forlorn way, Stauffbacher shrugged as if it were totally out of his hands. ‘I’m a published poet,’ Agnes wanted to say. She had had a poem published once – in the Gizzard Review, but still!
‘It was Edie Canterton’s list,’ Stauffbacher said. ‘I had nothing to do with it.’
She went to the reception anyway, annoyed, and when she planted herself like a splayed and storm-torn tree near the cheese, she could feel the crackers she was eating forming a bad paste in her mouth and she became afraid to smile. When she finally introduced herself to W.S. Beyerbach, she stumbled on her own name and actually pronounced it ‘On-yez’.
‘On-yez,’ repeated Beyerbach in a quiet Englishy voice. Condescending, she thought. His hair was blond and white, like a palomino, and his eyes were blue and scornful as mints. She could see he was a withheld man; although some might say shy, she decided it was withheld: a lack of generosity. Passive-aggressive. It was causing the people around him to squirm and nervously improvise remarks. He would simply nod, the smile on his face faint and vaguely pharmaceutical. Everything about him was tight and coiled as a doorspring. From living in that country, thought Agnes. How could he live in that country?
Stauffbacher was trying to talk heartily about the mayor. Something about his old progressive ideas and the forthcoming convention center. Agnes thought of her own meetings on the Transportation Commission, of the mayor’s leash law for cats, of his new squadron of meter maids and bicycle police, of a councilman the mayor once slugged in a bar. ‘Now, of course, the mayor’s become a fascist,’ said Agnes in a voice that sounded strangely loud, bright with anger.
Silence fell in the room. Edie Canterton stopped stirring the punch. Agnes looked around. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Are we not supposed to used that word in this room?’ Beyerbach’s expression went blank. Agnes’s face burned in confusion.
Stauffbacher looked pained, then stricken. ‘More cheese, anyone?’ he asked, holding up the silver tray.
After everyone left for dinner, she went by herself to the Dunk ’N Dine across the street. She ordered a California BLT and a cup of coffee, and looked over Beyerbach’s work again: dozens of images of broken, rotten bodies, of the body’s mutinies and betrayals, of the body’s strange housekeeping and illicit pets. At the front of the book was a dedication – To D.F.B. (1970–1989). Who could that be? A political activist maybe, ‘a woman who had thrown aside the unseasonal dress of hope’ only to look for it again ‘in the blood-blooming shrubs’. Perhaps if Agnes got a chance, she would ask him. Why not? A book was a public thing, and its dedication was part of it. If it was too personal a question for him, tough. She would find the right time, she decided, paying the check and putting on her jacket, crossing the street to the Hall. She would wait for the moment, then seize it.
He was already at the front door when she arrived. He greeted her with a stiff smile and a soft ‘Hello, On-yez’. His accent made her own voice ring coarse and country-western.
She smiled and then blurted, ‘I have a question to ask you.’ Her voice sounded like Johnny Cash’s.
Beyerbach said nothing, only held the door open for her and then followed her into the building.
She continued as they stepped slowly up the stairs. ‘May I ask you who your book is dedicated to?’
At the top of the stairs they turned left down the long corridor. She could feel his steely reserve, his lip biting, his shyness no doubt garbed and rationalized with snobbery, but so much snobbery to handle all that shyness that he could not possibly be a meaningful critic of his country. She was angry with him. How can you live in that country? she wanted again to say, although she remembered when someone once said that to her – a Danish man, on Agnes’s senior trip abroad to Copenhagen. It was during the Vietnam War, and the man had stared meanly, righteously. ‘The United States: how can you live in that country?’ the man had asked. Agnes had shrugged. ‘A lot of my stuff is there,’ she said, and it was only then that she first felt all the dark love and shame that came from the pure accident of home, the deep and arbitrary place that happened to be yours.
‘It’s dedicated to my son,’ Beyerbach said finally.
He would not look at her, but stared straight ahead along the corridor floor. Now Agnes’s shoes sounded very loud.
‘You lost a son,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ he said. He looked away, at the passing wall, past Stauffbacher’s bulletin board, past the men’s room, the women’s room, some sternness in him broken, and when he turned back she could see his eyes filling with water, his face reddened with unbearable pressure.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Agnes said.
They walked side by side, their footsteps echoing down the corridor toward her classroom. All the anxieties she felt with this mournfully quiet man now mimicked the anxieties of love. What should she say? It must be the most unendurable thing to lose a child. Shouldn’t he say something of this? It was his turn to say something.
But he would not. And when they finally reached the classroom, she turned to him in the doorway and, taking a package from her purse, said simply, in a reassuring way, ‘We always have cookies in class.’
Now he beamed at her with such relief that she knew she had for once said the right thing. It filled her with affection for him – perhaps, she thought, that’s where affection begins: in an unlikely phrase, in a moment of someone’s having unexpectedly but at last said the right thing. We always have cookies in class.
She introduced him with a bit of flourish and biography. Positions held, universities attended. The students raised their hands and asked him about apartheid, about shanty towns and homelands, and he answered succinctly, after long sniffs and pauses, only once referring to a question as ‘unanswerably fey’, causing the student to squirm and fish around in her purse for something, nothing, Kleenex perhaps. Beyerbach did not seem to notice. He went on, speaking of censorship: how a person must work hard not to internalize a government’s program of censorship, since what a government would like best is for you to do it yourself; how he himself was not sure he had not succumbed. Afterward, a few students stayed and shook his hand, formally, awkwardly, then left. Christa was the last. She too shook his hand and then started chatting amiably. They knew someone in common – Harold Raferson in Chicago! – and as Agnes quickly wiped the seminar table to clear it of cookie crumbs, she tried to listen but couldn’t really hear. She made a small pile of crumbs and swept them into one hand.
‘Goodnight,’ sang out Christa when she left.
‘Goodnight, Christa,’ said Agnes, brushing the crumbs off her hand and into the wastebasket.
She straightened and stood with Beyerbach in the empty classroom. ‘Thank you so much,’ she said, finally, in a hushed way. ‘I’m sure they all got quite a lot out of that. I’m very sure they did.’
He said nothing but smiled at her gently.
She shifted her weight from one leg to the other. ‘Would you like to go somewhere and get a drink?’ she asked. She was standing close to him, looking up into his face. He was tall, she saw now. His shoulders weren’t broad, but he had a youthful straightness to his carriage. She briefly touched his sleeve. His suit coat was corduroy and bore a faint odor of clove. This was the first time in her life that she had ever asked a man out for a drink.