Al•ice \ˈa-lǝs\ n : a girl transformed by reflection
On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary. And not only from the big glass building on Broadway where its offices were housed. On that night my father, Douglas Samuel Johnson, Chief Editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language, slipped from the actual artifact he’d helped compose.
That was before the Dictionary died, letters expiring on the page. Before the virus. Before our language dissolved like so much melting snow. It was before I nearly lost everything I love.
Words, I’ve come to learn, are pulleys through time. Portals into other minds. Without words, what remains? Indecipherable customs. Strange rites. Blighted hearts. Without words, we’re history’s orphans. Our lives and thoughts erased.
Before my father vanished, before the first signs of S0111 arrived, I’d reflected very little on our way of life. The changing world I’d come of age in—slowly bereft of books and love letters, photographs and maps, takeout menus, timetables, liner notes, and diaries—was a world I’d come to accept. If I was missing out on things, they were things I didn’t think to miss. How could we miss words? We were drowning in a sea of text. A new one arrived, chiming, every minute.
All my life my father mourned the death of thank-you notes and penmanship. The newspaper. Libraries. Archives. Stamps. He even came to miss the mobile phones he’d been so slow to accept. And of course he also grieved the loss of dictionaries as they went out of print. I could understand his nostalgia for these things. The aesthetics of an old Olivetti. A letter opener. A quill pen. But I’d dismissed him when he’d spoken darkly of vague “consequences” and the dangers of the Meme. When he’d lectured on “accelerated obsolescence” and “ouroboros” and foretold the end of civilization. For years, as he predicted so much of what eventually came to happen—the attenuation of memory; the ascendance of the Word Exchange; later, the language virus—no one listened. Not the government, or the media, or the publishing industry. Not my mother, who grew very tired of these plaints. Not me, even after I went to work for him when I was twenty-three. No one worried about the bends we might get from progress; we just let ourselves fly higher up.
Well—not quite no one. I later learned that my father had conspirators. Those who shared his rare beliefs. But I didn’t find them until after the night he departed. Or, in fact, they sort of found me.
My father and I were supposed to meet for dinner at the Fancy Diner on Fifty-second Street, a childhood ritual revived only a month before—the night my boyfriend, Max, had moved out. Our four years together, turned to dust. Maybe the breakup shouldn’t have come as a shock; we’d both tried ending things in the past. But I’d thought we’d finally bound ourselves to something solid and strong, and then—Max was gone.
When I’d stumbled into my father’s office, reeling with the news, he’d proposed that we knock off early. I was my dad’s assistant—what he called his “amanuensis”—a job I’d thought would be temporary when I’d taken it more than four years earlier, soon after college: just until I could finish my painting portfolio and apply to grad school, I’d assumed. But I’d come to really like my life. I’d relaxed into it, like a bath. I liked having time to watch movies: long, plotless, and Italian; short, violent, and French; action ones, especially with steely heroines; and my favorite, thanks to Dad, anything starring sweet Buster Keaton. I liked stalking the Thirty-ninth Street flea market for vintage jumpers, leather bombers, shirts for Max. Liked inviting friends and family over for lasagnas and soufflés. I liked walking the High Line and the Battery Wetlands with my mom and volunteering with her sometimes in the parks.
And the truth was, I also really liked the job. It wasn’t that hard, maybe, but it was fun: combing through contributors’ notes and importing edits to the corpus; filing quotation paragraphs; drafting memos. Even taking editorial meeting minutes wasn’t so bad. On days when I felt a little torpid or bored, I still liked the routine, having somewhere to be, with combed hair, not spattered in paint or clay (or uncertainty). I liked my colleagues, some of them as strange as me. And maybe most of all, I liked the time with my dad—who I got in the habit of calling Doug along with the rest of the staff—even when he made me crazy, which was often. He’d spent a lot of time at work when I was growing up, and I’d sometimes felt as if he were off on an extended trip even when he was sleeping each night at home. I’d missed him, without always realizing it. Getting to spend so much time with him as an adult—coming to know him in all his generous, larking, exacting glory—felt very lucky.
I still spent most weekends in the studio, painting, sculpting, making what Max called my “installations”: tiny dioramas, clothes of Kevlar or tinfoil or leaves, animated glyphs of Max and me doing odd routines. “Living in the now,” in Max’s words. My portfolio never felt quite done, which Doug often gently chided me for. “Are you sure you’re not just being hard on yourself? You’re capable of far more than you seem to think you are,” was a recurring refrain. But it always seemed that I had a little more to do and that finishing could wait.
Max’s plans—the MBA, the internships, Hermes Corp.—seemed more pressing, especially to him. “Once I start raking it in,” Max would say, “you can be whatever you want.” He’d say it to get at me. All my life I’d vexedly accepted other people’s money. My grandparents’, mostly. (They had a lot, and I had none, and I’m their only grandchild; I still tried to find polite ways to turn it down most of the time.) But there was more truth in what Max said than I’d liked to admit. And I did take it for granted, that we’d get married and start having kids. That was among the things I had to face when he left: myself.
But on the afternoon it happened—My stuff will b out 2nite, the text read—I wasn’t quite ready for that yet, which Doug sensed. (The tears rilling down my face as I braced against his desk may have been a hint.) That’s when he suggested the Fancy. “Let’s just see if I’m available,” he joked, browsing through his blank calendar. Doug was also single. He was almost always available.
In the month since then—as the Fancy’s specials cycled from pot roast to meatloaf to filet of sole to turkey, in anticipation of Thanksgiving—Doug and I had spent every Friday night in the diner’s front-corner booth. We liked it there because it still had a waitress, Marla. She was orange-haired and surly. Brought our food as if she were doing a favor. But even she was mostly for show; we’d order with my Meme, like anywhere. Still, it felt comforting. Mild abuse while we chewed.
We’d meet at seven-thirty, me coming from home, Doug straight from the Dictionary. He’d never been even a few minutes late. He’d usually be the one waiting. Hunched over a sheaf of pages, oblivious to the stares of small children unused to seeing such sustained, public use of pens and paper, he’d edit until I swept in, breathless from cold and the sad, lingering agitation of missing Max. “Give me a full report,” Doug would say as I slid in beside him on the tacky vinyl.
But on the night in question, I arrived to find our booth empty.
At first I was unfazed. Vaguely remembered Doug saying he had a late meeting. I tried to order tea, but my Meme changed the order to a hot toddy. When Marla sloshed the foggy glass down in front of me, I relaxed and sipped it gratefully. After twenty minutes, though, my pulse started racing. I thought I’d mixed up the dates—that this was the night of Doug’s big party and I should be home getting changed. My father had recently overseen a twenty-six-year revision of the Dictionary—by far the largest project of his career—and the forty-volume third edition was scheduled for release in just over a week. But before my fear of being late could fully bloom in my brain, my Meme trilled with a reminder that the party was the next Friday. Relieved, I turned back to the toddy as the words faded from the screen.
In the end I stayed half an hour, mobbed by sadness, Marla’s artless curiosity—“He ain’t coming?” were, I think, her exact words; words that inexplicably cut me to the quick—and a growing sense of irritation. I placed half a dozen calls to Doug’s office. Then, feeling slightly tipsy, I beamed Marla the check. I thought of heading home, but instead I trudged the few blocks east and north toward the Dictionary, buffeted by gritty winds.
As I turned the corner onto Broadway, hair lashing my face, I could swear I saw Max retreating off the avenue in a black cloud of suits. My heart beat faster. I thought of hiding, or turning back, but he was going the other direction and didn’t seem to notice me.
I’d seen a lot of Max lately. Ordering coffee. Waiting for the train. Resting his arm on someone stunning. Only it was never him. Just a phantom, made from the smoke of old memories. Real Max had moved to Red Hook, deep in the leafy reaches of Brooklyn, to that stretch known as the Technocracy Sector. When I saw that night’s version of him in profile, I decided I was wrong. Then I hurried on to the Dictionary.
The glass door to the lobby pushed back bodily when I lurched to open it, and let in one low, ghostly scream of wind as I made my way to security. Rodney was alone behind the desk. “Evening, Miss J,” he said. Dipped his grizzled head politely.
“Is he still up there?” I asked, dabbing my nose with my mitten.
“Haven’t seen him come down,” said Rodney. Looked at me quizzically.
The twentieth floor was dark and desolate. It was after eight p.m. on a Friday and everyone, even the lowliest, loneliest etymology assistant, had left hours earlier. Everyone, it seemed, but Doug. I shuffled down the dim corridor toward his office. Past my cubicle. Past the conference room, which was a disaster. Chairs everywhere. Table littered with cold coffees.
Light spilled from under Doug’s door, and I opened it without knocking. Started to ask, “Where were you?” as I stepped in. But then I stopped talking. Because he wasn’t there.
I can’t say what atavistic anxiety shivered through me, but I suddenly didn’t want to leave the bright oasis of my father’s office. I also didn’t want to stay. But mostly I didn’t want to go. I locked the door and dialed the lobby.
“Hmm,” said Rodney. “You want someone to come get you? I can’t leave the desk, but I could call Darryl down from twenty-two.”
I almost agreed, but I felt crazy. And Rodney sounded strange—angry, maybe. Then I spied a familiar item on Doug’s armchair: his brown leather satchel. “Forget it,” I told Rodney. Wherever Doug had disappeared to, I thought, mollified, he’d be back soon. And in the meantime I had a rare opportunity.
To be in Doug’s office without Doug was extremely unusual. And unlike his apartment, which was still unnervingly spare more than a year after his separation from my mother, this room was filled with my favorite father detritus. The jackalope hunting license that Aunt Jean had sent from their hometown—and my father’s namesake—of Douglas, Wyoming. The glass canister by the phone stocked with both sweet and salted licorice. And next to the desk lamp, the small, stoppered bottle of well-aged sherry vinegar that Doug said was for salad but from which I’d many times seen him take a straight swig.
Near the door were his pneumatic tubes, which emptied into a bin marked “In.” This label always struck me as gratuitous. But the same could maybe be said of the whole system. One of the first things Doug had done when he’d started at the Dictionary in 1974, at just twenty-seven (my age), was campaign to have pneumatic tubes installed, for fast, secure transport of “sensitive data” (e.g., neologisms, disputed antedatings, particularly thorny etymologies, etc.). Also the occasional fortune-cookie fortune. Comic book. Chocolate egg. The Dictionary had occupied two floors then, and Doug had argued that the tubes would increase efficiency. He decried the idea that they might be anachronistic, costly, and inconvenient. Dismissed the “rumor” that computers would soon allow the electronic shuffling of information. And against all odds, both his board and the building executives had okayed it. Doug could be extraordinarily persuasive. (Though my mother might disagree.)
It hadn’t been easy; the Dictionary shared the building with different entities—in those days, mostly publishers. As a nonprofit run on government and other grants, the NADEL was fairly separate. (It also got a bit of a break on rent; executives liked having its prestigious name on the directory.) But after the tubes’ success at the Dictionary, they were soon put in throughout the building. And initially nearly everyone used them; stations on each floor, as well as a few offices, like Doug’s, were set up for direct delivery. An operator in the subbasement routing terminal directed documents back and forth, and it was a boon to get contracts, memos, notes moved so quickly and easily. Later, when computers had indeed become prevalent; the Dictionary “streamlined” to one floor; and the operator started splitting his day between the terminal and the (also obsolescing) mailroom; tube use, already dwindling by then, stopped almost completely.
All of this was familiar to me. What I didn’t yet know that night in my father’s office was that ours wasn’t the only building in the city with tubes; at least a couple of other places had them as well—and had installed them far more recently.
Wending past Doug’s in-tray, I surveyed his books, too. He was one of few people I knew who still read that way, from a book, instead of streaming limns from a Meme or some other smart screen. Even Dictionary staffers didn’t do much analog reading. Except Bart, I should say. Bart was my father’s protégé. (I’d always envied that slightly.) He was head of Etymologies—what Doug called the Department of Dead Letters—and the Dictionary’s Deputy Editor. Bart also had lots of books. He and Doug weren’t alone, completely. There were other holdouts. And collectors, of course, who hoarded all kinds of antiquarian objets.
On one of Doug’s shelves, in front of a Samuel Johnson biography, was a half-empty bottle of Bay Rum aftershave, Doug’s preference for which, he claimed, required a visit every few years to Dominica, the West Indian island where it’s made. Seeing it that night, I felt a deep pang. It reminded me of a trip Max and I had taken there once, right after we’d fallen in love. That bottle, in fact, was probably an artifact: we’d shipped Doug back a case. “An offering for my future father-in-law,” Max had said then.
While we were there, we’d also stocked Doug up on pineapples. He had a special affection for them. There were a few pineapple etchings in his office—I could see two from where I stood—and a big bronze pineapple bookend. He also had a small stash of pineapple-print ties, some pineapple-patterned shirts and socks. A small bowl of stale oblong chocolates done up in yellow and green foils. He kept eight potted pineapple crowns under special lamps. That night they were a little dry. I’d tell Doug, I thought. If he ever showed.
I was getting antsy. I checked my Meme. Sneaked a licorice pip from Doug’s jar. Followed it with a pineapple-wrapped chocolate and squirreled a few in my coat pocket for later, along with a pen of Doug’s I’d been coveting. And I tried, for about two minutes, to read a book, until my mind collapsed in boredom.
I also started to feel a tiny twinge of unease, like an invisible hair tickling my cheek. To brush away the feeling, I fetched water for my father’s pet bromeliads and soothed myself with the rich, nutty scent of damp earth. Then I felt the delicious frisson of transgression creep over me.
For as long as I could remember, I’d been curious about what Doug kept in his desk. Siphoning off some of my attention to listen for the sound of his tread, I sat and tried all the drawers. Most were filled with work chaff: loose papers, crumpled notes, broken pencil leads. But then I tried the top drawer on the left. Tugged it. And tugged. Shimmied, a little crazily. Finally it came loose with a crack—a pen wedged at the back, I soon learned, had snapped in half—and the drawer released with a rattle.
To say I was surprised by what Doug had hidden there wouldn’t be quite true. But it did disappoint me. It was a cluttered (and newly ink-smattered) cache—probably the largest private collection in the world—of photographs of Vera Doran. My mother. Douglas Johnson’s soon-to-be ex-wife. And I felt very bad for splashing them with ink. But I also felt a tiny, unfair burst of reprisal. As Max would have said, there are no accidents. She was my mother, and I loved her, but sometimes I wished Doug didn’t anymore. Watching him suffer had been agony.
Looking back on our whole family life through a new dark lens also hadn’t been easy for me. Had my mother really been so unhappy? It hadn’t seemed that way. My parents had never been one of those gloomy couples like some of my friends’. They’d hugged and touched and said “I love you,” to each other and to me, and it had seemed so obviously true that the words were almost a superfluity. Doug would belt Don Giovanni to Vera in the kitchen as she laughingly roasted a chicken, trying not to spill her wine. He’d write love notes and scrawl funny drawings on grocery lists and receipts. Vera would mambo through the living room for Doug and me, or pretend the hallway was a catwalk. It’s true that when they’d fought, it had been fulminous—things sometimes went flying—but I’d always taken that as a good sign. And maybe it was, in a way. Over the past few years those fights had slowly come to an end.
Alena Graedon was born in Durham, NC, and is a graduate of Carolina Friends School, Brown University, and Columbia University’s MFA program. She was Manager of Membership and Literary Awards at the PEN American Center before leaving to finish The Word Exchange, her first novel, with the help of fellowships at several artist colonies. Her writing has been translated into nine languages. She lives in Brooklyn.