Read The Word Exchange Online

Authors: Alena Graedon

The Word Exchange

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2014 by Alena Graedon

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House companies.

and the portrayal of an anchor with a dolphin are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

Jacket design by Emily Mahon

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Graedon, Alena.
The word exchange : a novel / Alena Graedon.—First edition.
pages cm
1. Young women—Fiction. 2. Missing persons—Fiction. 3. Technology—
Fiction. 4. Transmission of texts—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3607.R3286W67 2014

ISBN 978-0-385-53765-0 (hardcover)       ISBN 978-0-385-53766-7 (eBook)


For my parents, who have never disappeared

I am not yet so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are the daughters of the earth, and that things are the sons of heaven.

—Samuel Johnson,
preface to
A Dictionary of the English Language

use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you
make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

—Lewis Carroll,
Through the Looking-Glass

As a boy, I used to marvel that the letters in a closed book did not get scrambled and lost overnight.

—Jorge Luis Borges,
“The Aleph”

Al•ice \′a-l
: 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—whom 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.

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