Quentin was 24, a young professional earning more than his keep at Walton & Hestfield, a job he had secured thanks to a debt Quentin’s father owed to Quentin’s uncle. Quentin’s résumé placed him well beneath the scores of other job applicants salivating at the prospect of joining the prestigious firm located where else but at the corner of Lexington and Vine, the heart of the city. Quentin’s uncle had pulled some strings, flexed his networking muscles, and ensured that the unqualified Quentin received a job offer from the executives whom the uncle regularly humiliated on the Havenshire Country Club golf course (the nicer of the two courses, of course). Quentin was oblivious to his underqualification. He was much too optimistic, much too kindhearted and trusting, to realize people ever acted in ways that betrayed their true opinions of him. Quentin’s naivety gave him an innocent kind of confidence that, so long as one never learned just how dimwitted Quentin could be, made him quite charming. This and his equally unassuming brand of handsomeness—the best kind of handsomeness, really—explained his surprising, though always short-lived, success with the ladies. There was a tendency for single women, upon meeting Quentin, to view him as a kind of modern-day prince in appropriately khaki-fied armor. A good three or four dates could pass before a woman realized that Quentin’s aloofness was not the manifestation of boyish charm but of a sincere lack of mental capabilities. Usually, one or two attempts at deep conversation would solidify the woman’s suspicions, and she would suddenly find herself too busy to meet Quentin for dinner, to see that movie with him, to return his phone calls, or in some cases, to come back from the restroom to her loudly masticating date. Fortunately, Quentin’s genuine good faith in others had spared him a lot of hurt feelings over the years. He rarely, if ever, begrudged these women, assuming that each and every time they said “something has come up,” by golly, they meant it. In the world of romance, Quentin was like a well-aged man who always carries an umbrella, no matter the forecast and regardless of the amount of blue in the sky. He expected the unexpected, and as such, he regarded the sudden shifts in the amorous weather as no big deal, and more importantly, as nobody’s fault.
July 17th marked the 18-month anniversary of Quentin’s daily train ride to work. He failed to notice this, but rode the train in an exceptionally jubilant mood that morning nonetheless. Quentin enjoyed his daily commute. Taking cues from his fellow passengers, Quentin had decided after his first week at Walton & Hestfield that the time spent on the train each morning should be passed either reading the morning paper or playing Sudoku. Quentin hadn’t so much as touched a newspaper since 2001, when as a freshman in high school, he was required to report on current events for his social science class. The weekly assignment had bored him extensively, and he now felt an adamant aversion to reading newspapers voluntarily. He opted for Sudoku, bought himself a thick little book of over 500 Sudoku puzzles at the local newsstand, and attempted to master the game over the next three weeks. Try as he might, Quentin eventually gave up on the game, finding it impossible to make the numbers in each three-by-three square add up to 9. On the 11th day of playing the game, he experienced momentary elation at the realization that plugging negative numbers into some of the squares might just be the secret to conquering the game. Sadly, Quentin successfully solved only one Sudoku puzzle, even after this grand discovery. (The winning game involved placing the value “n+1” in the upper left hand corner of the square, a move Quentin thought ingenious but was never able successfully to replicate.)
Waving the proverbial white flag at publishers of Sudoku puzzles everywhere, Quentin decided he would spend his morning commutes immersed in the puzzle game that had absorbed so much of his time as a kid—Mad Libs. Not being the brightest bushel in the shed (as Quentin sometimes said of others), Quentin was flustered by Mad Libs that required much more of his grammatical and syntactical prowess than the supplying of simple nouns and adjectives. He was particularly annoyed at the frequent demand for verbs ending in –ing, a seemingly unreasonable demand given that the commonest verbs in the English language—“run,” “eat,” and “swim,” for example—do not end in –ing. As a youth, Quentin beamed with pride whenever he thought of new –ing verbs—“bring,” “sing,” “spring,” “swing”—which he jotted down in a spiral notebook and kept hidden underneath his bed lest someone else reap the benefits of his work. The list scarcely made it to half a dozen words, and Quentin wasn’t even sure if “ching” counted. It wasn’t long before Quentin’s go-to list of verbs ending in –ing felt overused. Still, he felt resigned to use them, even as the words so often failed to make sense within the context of the stories they were meant to complement. Quentin chalked it up to the fact that Mad Libs thrive on being zany.
As an adult, Quentin felt obligated to take Mad Libs to the next level. In the most recent two weeks, Quentin had started timing his games, giving himself no longer than two minutes to fill in every blank on a given Mad Lib page. This put a great deal of pressure on Quentin’s brain, but he took pleasure in the adrenaline that seeped into his veins as a result. He also found that many of the Mad Libs turned out all the funnier because of the frantic pace with which he completed them. This was not so much because Quentin’s sense of humor and creativity were elevated during the timed games, but because the time constraints caused him to be sloppy. Quentin snorted when he once discovered that he had written “cringe” for a verb ending in –ing, and he laughed out loud when he saw moments later that he had written “sleeping” as a verb ending in –ing on the very same page. He was doubly delighted by the latter gaffe, since “sleeping” was clearly not the kind of verb ending in –ing that the writers of Mad Libs were seeking (it was, after all and properly speaking, a derivative of “sleep,” which does not end in –ing), and yet somehow, the word actually made sense within the context of the story! It was one of the first times this had happened for Quentin. (He made a mental note to send a letter to the publishers of Mad Libs recounting this tale of irony.)
On this morning’s commute, Quentin’s good spirits lasted just until the train passed Summoner’s Park, at which point Quentin turned the page to a particularly brutal game of Mad Libs and felt his enthusiasm dissipate like passed gas. Why, the whole page asked for no more nouns and adjectives than three and four, respectively. Other than that, the game insisted on quite a few verbs and adverbs, plus one name of a person in the room. Being on a train rather than in a room, Quentin was unsure of how to respond to the latter request. He ate up a good 30 seconds wondering if he should jot down his own name, the only name of anyone in the vicinity that he knew. He did eventually scribble “Quentin” onto the two-inch black line, but he felt he was bending the rules in doing so. He promised himself he would read the Mad Lib again once he was officially in a room if it turned out that his not being in a room made the story incoherent. Continuing on, Quentin sweated and strained to finish the puzzle. With 15 seconds to go, Quentin still had one verb ending in –ing and one adverb needing to be filled. Furiously tapping his feet and chewing on his bottom lip, Quentin racked his brain. 10 seconds remaining! “Sting!” his brain shouted at him, and Quentin’s eyes went wide. His shaking right hand manipulated the ballpoint pen across one of the empty lines. His gaze then fell to the lone void remaining at the bottom of the page. “C’mon, adverb! Adverb, adverb, adverb!” Quentin thought to himself.
Five seconds remaining!
Quentin wiped the sweat from his brow, his curly chestnut hair quickly becoming matted against his moist forehead. “Adverb! Like an adjective verb!” Quentin continued to prod himself.
Nothing was coming to mind! Quentin groaned. The other passengers on the train glanced over at him in curiosity. Guttural moans were typically reserved for the sleeping and inebriated vagabonds who frequented the train. Only rarely were such bellows proffered by the business class, and typically that was just before the groaning individual made sick. Those nearest to Quentin scooted ever so slightly away from him, though he was too immersed his game to notice their impromptu, synchronous emigration.
“I need an adverb! I need an adverb!” Quentin’s mind screamed at itself, but to no avail. His brain continued to give him the silent treatment.
The consternation was too much. Quentin leaped from his seat and turned to his fellow passengers. Instinctually, the huddled mass of commuters looked up at him in rapt attention. Grabbing onto a handrail and steadying himself, Quentin cleared his throat and, with one second remaining, blurted aloud:
“I need an adverb! Quickly!”