Meeting a complete stranger (and a stranger one than most) alone at his place for tea in mid-evening is not a thing Cathryn would normally do or even advise doing. But she had a Problem to solve. She had a husband unconscious and being fished back from the pool of death and a friend in an almost equally parlous circumstance, and the door to the solution had a lock on it that would only open if you answered the right riddle the right way. If it would even open then. So Cathryn was walking down a mostly empty streetlamp-lit sidewalk with undead leaves dancing around her feet like mocking street urchins, on her way from the subway station to 26 Prince Street. On either side of her, buildings of a sampler of ages and a random distribution of heights rose in expressionist perspective.
And then she was at the door.
26 Prince Street had a one-address-wide entryway. Above it rose a sliver of classical quotation into the digesting dark. Its architecture made use of all three orders of columns: Corinthian, Phryg-Dorian, and Ironic. Cathryn felt that she should not let anyone at the Faculty of Architecture know she had even been in such a building, although one of them probably designed it. She stepped in and a pleasant fellow in cheap uniform greeted her from between a desk and a wall-sized mirror: “Good evening.”
“Hello. Uh… Unit five seven nine? Maxim Patryshyn?”
The deskman picked up a phone, dialled up, looked up. “Your name?”
He put the phone to his head. Pause. “Catherine S. P. is here for you.” Pause. He hung up and gestured to one of the two sets of elevators. “Fifty-seventh floor. Have a nice evening.”
Cathryn hesitated for a moment and then thought, “There must be no more than nine – no, ten – units on each floor. Still, how odd.” Half the elevators went from ground to 29; the other half went from 29 to 57. She chose appropriately.
This is about where a person typically thinks, “I’m probably dreaming, but this does seem completely real.” But she wasn’t dreaming.
She got into an elevator. It was not very large and had a old-timey look. She pressed 57.
Her ears popped on the way up from the pressure change.
The hallway at the top was small, straight, and dimly lit with sconces. It had four doors on it: At one end, 571. Near the middle, almost opposite the elevators, 573. At the other end, 577. And just next to the elevators, 579.
She knocked on 579.
You probably have some idea of what Maxim Patryshyn looked like. Perhaps you have a set of possibilities. Cathryn did.
And when the door opened, she blinked twice.
So did the person who opened it, a man in his later twenties, lean, dark-haired, unnecessarily good looking, wearing old overwashed jeans and a long-sleeve cactus-coloured top that said, in Helvetica Neue, “I AM SILENTLY JUDGING YOU’RE GRAMMAR.”
“…Maxim Patryshyn?” Cathryn said.
He smiled slightly and, as he scanned her visually – not failing to take notice of the one ring she was wearing – said, “Cathryn Espy. Do come in.” He made a polite gesture.
She took off her coat. “May I?” She made to hang it on a hook by the door.
She hung it and continued in.
The apartment must have been intended as a servant’s apartment for the suite next door, given the size of the building and the size of what she was walking into. Immediately to the right was the bathroom; past that was a kitchen that was more of a corner with some appliances and cupboards; beyond that was a single room. Her trained eyes spotted the patch of wall where a Murphy bed was flipped up; it had a large print of a black-and-white photo of someone sitting on a rooftop, reading, seen from a higher rooftop. There was a single pair of tall windows with a really splendid view. Every other inch of the walls – plus one waist-height incursion into the middle of the room just before the Murphy bed – was covered in books, piled two and three deep and heaped on top of each other on a commonlaw assortment of shelves. Mister Patryshyn had a book collection worthy of someone twice his age.
In the space defined by the waist-height bookshelf incursion and the edge of the kitchen, visually defined by a Persian rug someone’s grandmother probably died on, there were two armchairs, different, facing each other, with a tea table in between. On the table was, of course, tea: a stodgy brown pot and two china cups with different floral patterns. Plus a lightly tarnished silver sugar-and-cream. Maxim gestured to sit. “I hope you don’t mind Ceylon. This is Labookellie Estate.”
“…No, that’s fine,” Cathryn said, sitting down.
“I think Darjeeling would be more appropriate,” Maxim said, “given the amount of lightning one sees out the window here, but I don’t have any at the moment. I would have served milk oolong, but not everyone likes it.”
Cathryn scanned his bookshelves as he talked. What she could see contained various volumes of philosophy, psychology, physics, and a few novels. There was an old set of Britannicas at the bottom. Some poetry. On the edge of the shelf were a few boxes containing board games. The novels included Pynchon, Atwood, Vonnegut, Walsh, and several she hadn’t heard of. On the floor there were a few more stacked, including Infinite Jest and The Corrections.
He noticed her looking. “That’s my unfinished pile. Some books really deserve a rest in the middle.” He sighed. “I’ll get through Franzen, but don’t you think he writes like someone who thinks if he says enough mean things about himself he can say all the mean things he wants about other people?”
Cathryn was momentarily nonplussed, in the dictionary sense. “…You know, I haven’t read him.”
Maxim shrugged. “Do you like fiction? —It’s not required.” He smiled winsomely and half-chuckled politely.
“I…” Her eyes landed on the board games. “You play Balderdash?”
“Seldom. It doesn’t work without four, or preferably six, people. I don’t often have such a crowd.”
“That must be… fun for a lexicographer. Getting to cut loose.”
“You know, I almost don’t think I merit the term ‘lexicographer’,” he said, finally sitting. “This is a fairly new job for me, and it’s a bit of a thrill, I must say. Though it’s kind of… It’s a rather unexpected experience.”
“How do you come to be in charge of the online Worcester Universal?”
Maxim started pouring tea. “Marcy Coachman put my name in. She’s an old friend of mine.”
“I don’t know her.”
Maxim seemed slightly surprised by this. “She’s in charge of the Twitter presence of Worcester. Also she’s a lexicographer.”
“And… You must have some background.”
“Milk?” He held up the little pitcher.
“Oh, thank you.”
He poured. “I have a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and I’ve been a blogger on language for some time. Pseudonymously.”
“Wait. You’re a linguist.” Cathryn didn’t know that much about linguistics but she knew that it was not highly compatible with prescriptivism.
“Not a very good one, but yes. I escaped academia. Think of a painting of Saturn devouring his children. Imagine a child in the background running out of the frame. That would be me.”
“So…” Cathryn didn’t really know what to ask next, though she knew exactly what she wanted to find out. She sipped her tea and hoped he might know the question so she would not need to ask it. He said nothing. He looked at her fingernails, which were still painted black and still had three flames on each, every flame the colour of her dyed hair. She at last said, “How do you decide on your updates?”
He looked at her, perhaps trying to determine something about her. Inhaled. Did not exhale for a moment. Then: “The upper management at Worcester asked me to make it as universal as possible. The most basic sense. The most defensible.” He sipped his tea. His eyes remained on her, and she couldn’t decide whether they belonged to a puppy or to a kitten. “Axiomatic.” His eyes flicked to the bookshelf behind her. “Did you know ‘axiomatikos’ is Greek for ‘military officer’?”
She turned, almost expecting to see a Greek officer. What she saw in fact was a shelf full of dictionaries from different languages, and he was looking at the Greek one. She looked back. “The senses are sort of…” she grabbed a word that was flying past… “maxims.”
He laughed slightly by reflex. “They’re Maxim’s. Only they’re not mine, really. Maybe you should say they’re a kind of optimality: a minimax. But not mini-me.”
“It does seem surprising that you would choose this approach,” Cathryn said.
Maxim looked down at the tea pot. “I had a needle to thread. They also said they had gotten a lot of complaints about some of the most recent updates.”
“Literally,” Cathryn said.
“Yes, among others,” Maxim said. “They were getting heat – I should say negative comments from people who were sticklers, and they were worried. I said I thought that the point of a dictionary was to reflect usage. They said they thought I was clever enough that I would be able to finesse that.” He stopped talking but his mouth was not quite quiescent; he appeared to be in a quiet moment of a close-up in a Godard film, his jaw shifting slightly side to side as though trying to find the next word in his mouth.
“It’s had some unexpected effects,” Cathryn said after a moment.
He looked at her as though he wanted to ask what had happened to her, or in her life, but he was afraid to. Instead, he said, “Language is fun. I really enjoy playing with language, and I enjoy making use of the precision and the freedom. Every word has both. Every word is like a knife and a feather. So… I put an addition in the forematter. The explanatory text at the beginning. The Introduction. It says that all words can have figurative senses. All words can have extended senses. The definitions of the terms give the literal sense but for any word you can use it in an extended non-literal sense. I thought by putting that at the beginning, and then making the definitions just the literal ones, I would have it all covered.”
“I didn’t see that,” Cathryn said.
“No one did. No one does. No one has. It turns out no one reads the forematter. No one reads the instructions. People treat a dictionary like an armoury. They run in, grab the weapon they want, and run out again.”
“I don’t understand why—” Cathryn blurted, and stopped. “Can’t you change it?”
“…I mean. It’s kind of fun, isn’t it? But no, I can’t.”
“It’s kind of fun? And why can’t you change it?”
“It’s fun because you can’t believe that things would happen literally. I really did laugh when Pierre told me about their carnival. But I can’t change it because… well, you can’t just flip-flop. You have to commit.” He looked over at his shelf. “‘Per scelera semper sceleribus tutum est iter.’ Seneca wrote that. ‘The safest way through crime is by more crime.’ I think that that applies to other things too. You do more damage by going halfway. If you’re sledding down a steep slope, you can’t lean back, or you’ll lose control and wipe out. You have to lean forward. Right now it’s causing problems, but I think it can fix more problems if we keep going.”
Cathryn leaned forward. “Why is it happening?!”
Maxim deflated slightly. “I have no idea.”
“You’re not a magician.”
“No, I’m the Wizard of Oz. And by accident.” He sat back and drank down his tea. Then he leaned forward and poured himself another cup. “Would you like some more?” he said, almost as though asking for forgiveness.
Cathryn drank what was left in her cup and held it out. As he poured, she said, “You’re not what I expected.”
“I’m not surprised.” He poured and then set the pot back down. “I like playing games, and I like playing the grey-haired owl-eyed abecedarian.” He poured some milk into her cup. “But really I just want to have fun.” He set down the pitcher. “…I’ve hurt you, haven’t I? I didn’t mean to hurt anyone, and I don’t know how it’s happening.” His lower eyelids looked slightly shinier.
She looked straight at him. “My husband is in the hospital. My friend’s husband is in the hospital.”
He made a wide-flat-mouth expression. “I can’t undo the definitions because I’m locked out. I can update each one once and then not again. I can only move forward. They had their developers set it up that way.”
“Can’t you blackmail them into it?”
“I don’t want to cast the wrong spell. Do you know what I’m saying? I don’t know who the developers are anyway – Marcy doesn’t know either, it’s offshored now – and I have to be careful about unintended effects.”
“Well. Can you think of a way to get someone out of the hospital who’s starving to death? Or someone who’s been enervated?”
He closed his eyes for a moment, turned his face down and to the side, and exhaled and inhaled, as though he was feeling a brief stabbing pain. “…I hope so. Let me think about it. If you have any good ideas…”
Cathryn felt bad for this mooncalf, this well-meaning earnest young man who was playing with magic he didn’t know how to control and seemed, within, to want out of it as much as she did.
“Yes,” she said. “I’ll try to think of something. But I’m no lexicographer.”
He shrugged. “Neither am I, really.”
Cathryn drank down her second cup and stood up. “I should go, I think.”
Maxim stood up. “It’s been very nice meeting you. And I’m really sorry. I truly am.”
She nodded. She walked over to her coat.
“May I ask,” he said, “how you got my name?”
She turned to look at him. “It was on a bookmark that Pierre gave me.” She started fishing in her purse.
“Really! Pierre! He’s not supposed to tell anyone.”
“It was by accident… here…” She pulled out the bookmark. It had just Pierre’s name, email, and phone number on it. “What the…”
Then she realized what had happened. The bookmark in question was on her desk at home.
“No, wait, it was on another bookmark,” she said. “Just like this. But I found it on the subway. A guy dropped it and I picked it up.”
“Ahhhhh,” Maxim said. “What are the odds!” Then he thought for a moment, his eyes reading invisible lines in the air. “I know who dropped it. I’m pretty sure.”
“Does he want it back?”
“I’ll ask.” He opened the door. “It has been lovely making your acquaintance.”
“Likewise.” She stepped out. “Goodnight.”
“See you later.”