Thursday morning, 4:57. The phone jumps around on the night table, buzzing like a hornet.
AD: Hi there.
JSC: What? What’s that?
AD: Jeffrey, is that you?
JSC: Yes, of course. Who’s calling? You know this is Oregon, right? Pacific time zone. You east coast reporters have been ringing all week before dawn.
AD: I’m so sorry to disrupt your slumbers again, but this is Alice…
JSC: Alice? Alice who?
AD: Oh, come now, you’ve been waiting for me to call, haven’t you? You wrote how anxious you were to hear my voice.
JSC: Stop being coy. I’m trying to sleep. Wait a minute…
AD: It’s coming to you now, isn’t it?
JSC: Alice, Alice Don…
AD: Yes. Donovan, Alice Donovan.
JSC: Hell! Where’s my damn notebook…
AD: I read those awful papers and decided I’d give you a ring. Thought you might need some consoling. You were so nice to send me your number, even though you sounded a trifle desperate in your last note.
JSC: It’s been a crazy week. Alice, is this really you?
AD: Would I lie to you, Jeffrey?
AD: Have a little faith. People have been saying you’re so trusting. Trusting to a fault that St. Clair is … a real dupe.
AD: But now you sound suspicious. I was hoping for a warmer reception. I guess you really, really want to see that water bill with my name on it, don’t you? Hilarious. I thought you were joking. It’s such a dull request. So pedestrian. Where’d you come up with that one? The Columbia School of Journalism’s rulebook for editors? I expected more from you. I thought you were one of those gonzo types. Can’t you think of anything else I could show you? Something a little more revealing of my true nature perhaps?
JSC: Now that you mention it…
AD: Hold on, comrade. Don’t be so anxious. Let’s take our time.
JSC: But Alice the situation is dire. Our credibility is in question. Your very existence is in doubt.
AD: I know! It’s fun, isn’t it? Seeing everyone so agitated. Especially at you. They’ve almost forgotten about me. I have you to thank for that, Jeffrey. Taking the spotlight off me and putting it squarely on you. So chivalrous, you are. Courtly almost…
JSC: Was that the plan? To use us as your patsies?
AD: Don’t be so paranoid! There was no plan. Not much of one, any way.
JSC: But why? Weren’t we nice to you? Didn’t we run your stories, Alice?
AD: Not enough of them. And I didn’t think all of those rejection notices were very nice. Honestly, I found them rather cruel. You don’t know how much time I spent on them, finding the right opening line, one with punch, honing the sentences, smoothing out the transitions, getting the tenses right, cutting the clichés, not writing over your readers’ heads. 8th grade level, I think you said. It’s a blow to one’s pride to see my work tossed away so casually.
JSC: But you stole some of those sentences, Alice. You stole whole paragraphs. Complete articles.
AD: That’s rather harsh. I don’t think of it as stealing. I was paying tribute to writing that I admire. Sometimes I find composition, isn’t that what you call it, so arduous. It doesn’t come naturally for me. Especially as English isn’t my first….Oh, never mind.
JSC: What did you just say, Alice?
AD: I said you can be rather cruel, can’t you…
JSC: No, no. After that. Something about English.
AD: Hey, have you watched MSNBC lately? The Resistance is really ripping into you, buster. A sexist Bernie Bro. Isn’t that just too rich! You a Bernie Bro! I guess nobody read your book—well, nothing new there, eh? And a sexist, even though you were publishing me! Of course, those rejection letters were patronizing.
JSC: They think Putin wrote the stories, Alice, not you.
AD: Now that is sexist! What’s a girl have to do to get some credit around here, even with the sisters? I wasn’t asking to get paid. I didn’t demand any royalties per-pageview. I was thrilled just to have my byline out there. Why is everyone so uptight about that? Do you think if I’d been named Al Donovan, we’d be getting this kind of heat?
JSC: Probably not. Wait a minute. Weren’t you going to show me something?
AD: Have you looked at my Twitter page lately? Did you see that I’ve added more than 40 followers since that scandalous Washington Post story went online? The Post did more to market my writing than you ever did. I’m up to 87 followers now. We’re all going to really celebrate when we crack triple digits.
AD: What’s that phrase you Americans, I mean, journalists use? All publicity is good publicity? Well, they won’t be able to call me “Alice of the 47 Followers” anymore, will they? Though I must say it felt rather empowering to think that my little writings struck such fear into the entire government and those sophisticated media types. After all this commotion, have they proved I’m a troll yet?
JSC: If so, I haven’t seen the evidence. Can I ask you something Alice? Do you have a thing for Paul Krugman?
AD: What a question, Jeffrey! Kind of personal, don’t you think?
JSC: I noticed that you didn’t re-Tweet any CounterPunch articles on your Twitter page. Not even your own. But you did re-Tweet what I thought was a rather bland Krugman column?
AD: Aren’t they all bland? It’s the beard, Jeffrey, the beard. Paul’s is just immaculate. You should try growing one…Say, have you checked your phone? Do you think it’s bugged? You might scan the microwave and TV, too, while you’re at it. Remember when the delightful Kellyann Conway warned us about those sneaky new listening devices the spooks install in appliances these days. Smart appliances. That’s funny. Didn’t you find it pretty creepy that the FBI was snooping on our emails and then leaking them to a reporter for everyone to read? What if we’d been engaged in some salacious banter? That could have been really embarrassing.
A church bell begins to ring in the background. Four times it chimes.
JSC: Is it four o’clock where you are, Alice?
JSC: I thought you lived in New York City?
AD: Seems like ages ago. I don’t live there anymore. Who can afford to?
JSC: Right. But listen, where are you calling from? Do you mind…
AD: Looking back on it, I’ve got some questions about your editorial decision-making.
JSC: You’re not the only one.
AD: Frankly, I don’t think you published my best material.
JSC: Why is that?
AD: Well, look, you only posted five of my stories and none of them even mentioned the hottest topics of the time: Hillary, Putin, the 2016 elections, stolen emails, Wikileaks or Julian Assange. Don’t you think you’re taking your aversion to click-bait a little too far?
JSC: When you put it like that.
AD: Karma’s a bitch, isn’t it, Jeffrey?
JSC: What do you mean, Alice?
AD: Everyone now thinks you published those articles of mine that you actually rejected, right?
JSC: They do?
JSC: I try not to.
AD: Take that opening paragraph in the Post story. You guys call it the lede, I think.
JSC: So? What about it?
AD: Give me a sec. I’ve got it right here.
There’s a rustling of papers and the sound of… could it be klezmer music?… in the background.
AD: Here we go.
The first email arrived in the inbox of CounterPunch, a left-leaning American news and opinion website, at 3:26 a.m. — the middle of the day in Moscow.
“Hello, my name is Alice Donovan and I’m a beginner freelance journalist,” read the Feb. 26, 2016, message.
It’s very dramatic, isn’t it? Gives me chills no matter how many times I read it.
JSC: That’s one way to put it.
AD: Oh, I recall that email I sent you, word by word. I always remember the first time. The initial pitch. The excitement and vulnerability, not knowing if you were going to take the bait and run with it. (Yes, Jeffrey, my father used to take me trout fishing. But I much preferred trolling. Excuse me: TRAWLING!) Note how the writers emphasize Moscow time!
JSC: I did. But I thought the troll barracks for the online army of Northern Night was in St. Petersburg not Moscow?
AD: I don’t know anything about that. But perhaps the Post writers simply thought most American readers might believe there was a Russian cyber army holed up in Florida, just around the time they were heading south for vacation. Marco Rubio wouldn’t have been pleased by a panicky rush of canceled reservations. Not in this economy.
JSC: What’s your point, Alice?
AD: Don’t you see? You didn’t run that article, did you?
JSC: No, we didn’t.
AD: Or the next one…
AD: In fact, most of my pieces you just threw right in the trash, didn’t you?
JSC: Not in the trash, Alice, we’ve still got them. We’re not that heartless….
AD: Did the Post story mention any of that?
JSC: Not that I recall.
AD: See? Everyone thinks you published them. Everyone thinks you couldn’t resist my offers. That’s what really irritates me about you, Jeffrey.
AD: You could have run all 28 of my articles, even the ones about Hillary and Wikileaks, and been no worse off than you are now, since everyone, except the people who can’t afford to peak behind Jeff Bezos’s paywall, believes you ran them anyway. Do you think I want my clippings file to be dominated with pieces published by Veterans Today? Have you seen that site? It’s a grindhouse of paranoiacs.
JSC: Thanks for rubbing it in.
AD: Oh, grow up. What’s done is done. You can’t live your life waiting on a retraction…I’d be more concerned about the end of the story, if I were you.
JSC: Why is that?
AD: Listen to this:
St. Clair tapped out a new message, begging her to provide proof — a photograph of her driver’s license or passport — that would show that she was the beginning freelance journalist she claimed to be in her introductory email from 2016.
Now that’s a pretty pathetic image they draw of you, a broken man “begging” me to call you and send proof I’m real. They actually wrote “begging!” That’s not how I recall it. I thought you were being rudely insistent, fishing for my address and phone number. But that’s neither here nor there, now. What did your wife think, when she read that?
JSC: I told her that you probably looked more like Seth Rogen on a Vodka bender than the Alicia Vikander pose you struck on your Twitter profile.
AD: And that helped?
JSC: Not really.
AD: I know you’ve had a rough few weeks, so I’m going to do you a favor. Beg me again. Put some real feeling into it this time, Jeffrey. Make me believe you and I’ll drop that little water bill with my name on it that you crave so desperately right into the mail. But you have to promise to pay it….
The alarm rings. I rise from a deep slumber and glance at the clock. It’s 6:03. I look for my phone. I must have left it in the office.
Go Ask Alice, I Think She’ll Know
What I’m reading this week…
The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear Planner by Daniel Ellsberg
Tamed: 10 Species That Changed Our World by Alice Roberts
The Dawn Watch: Josef Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff
What I’m listening to this week…
Burn Me Alive by Heather Newman
Goin’ Platinum by Robert Finley
Translator’s Note by Oded Tzur
Fresh by The Bitchin’ Bajas
The Study of Touch by Django Bates
The Heart of Darkness in Our Own Bathrooms
John Leonard: “Do you suppose Latin American writers, trying to mix literary modernism with revolutionary politics, resent our blue-eyed exploitation of their continent as a sort of compost heap of the libidinal and the symbolic? Aren’t D. H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, Robert Stone and Paul Theroux imperialists? What do black Africans think of Conrad, Bellow, Updike and Edgar Rice Burroughs? Why don’t the white guys look for the heart of darkness in their own bathrooms?”