Inspector O and the Adverb Generator
“Do you throw darts or take one out of a hat?”
I’d just walked up to his table, and this opening set me back a moment. Inspector O could be abrupt, but this was a home run.
“Excuse me?” I decided to try to disarm him, build his confidence, as it were, by pushing back but only gently. “Isn’t it appropriate to start with a hello, how are you, that sort of thing?” I pulled up a chair and set myself down across from him. “Something on your mind, I take it.”
“It’s a question, Church, a simple question. Don’t dodge. Darts or a hat?”
“Hello, I’m fine. How are you?” I picked up a battered menu and pretended to peruse it, nodding as if I’d found something that looked good. “Do I get context for your question, or do I just pick one of the choices, and if I guess the right answer, take home the barbeque set and the beach chairs?”
“Don’t be cute, Church. This isn’t a game show. You can’t buy any letters. And I couldn’t sell them anyway; they’re sanctioned. Let’s try it this way. You might want to write these down.” He opened his notebook. “Sternly, seriously sustained, robustly.” He looked up and gave me a meaningful look. “And now this new one—appropriately.”
“Adverbs. All except ‘sustained.’ I supposed it could be sustainedly.”
“As usual, you are a font of knowledge.” He pulled an envelope from his jacket pocket and took from it an official-looking piece of paper. He cleared his throat. “I am instructed to ask if your people have invented an adverb generator.” He waited for a moment. “Don’t scoff. Every time one of your officials speaks on the question of a response to our next nuclear test, there is a new adverb. And the question I keep getting is, why?”
“It’s an affliction,” I said. “Adverbs, I mean. They are an affliction. They are irresistible, seep into talking points like water under a rotting baseboard. Naked verbs are treated as embarrassing or dull, to be avoided at all costs. Write a simple verb, and someone on the clearance line will add an adverb.”
“Church, I really don’t need a lesson in bureaucratic disease. Another time, maybe.”
“All right. As far as I can tell, those first adverbs you listed were meant to communicate a certain amount of weight.”
“Weight,” O repeated, and he wrote it down. “You want us to buy new scales?”
“Figure of speech,” I said. “Words can’t have weight, really.”
“Oh? You think so?” His eyebrows shot up. “We might differ there. The right word might say more than you think. I trust you know the saying that people ‘weigh their words.’”
“Fine, pedantic but fine.”
“As I’ve noted to you before, your ‘s’ words seem to have some sort of bite, or so you might think. However, this latest one, ‘appropriately,’ sounds lightweight. To another nuclear test, we’re now told by Mr. Kirby, nice fellow, by the way. We like listening to him.”
“Your point, Inspector?”
“Ah, yes, he now says you will respond ‘appropriately.’ Very gray, very foggy. Makes us think we might need to order rain slickers from Elbin.”
“L.L. Bean,” I said. “You get the catalogs?”
“Never mind what I get. The word ‘appropriately,’ what is it?
“Not foggy, more likely it is meant to be sound judicious.”
“Or weaselly.” He smiled. “See, I am not a boob in the woods.”
“Babe,” I said, “and, no, I wouldn’t think so.”
“We need to know why these keep changing. Better yet, I am authorized to make a suggestion that you just stop them. Don’t worry about weight. Your talking points will not float away without them. Just say that you will respond, and that we’ll know what it will be when we see it. Because let’s face it, Church, you aren’t going to scare us ahead of time, no matter what word ending in -ly you use.”
“That’s deterrence,” I said.
“Scaring you ahead of time.”
“Yes, well.” He scratched his ear. “Two can play that game.” He paused to consult his notebook again. “Which reminds me, what is this obsession with predicting when our next nuclear test will be? Does someone get a prize if they guess right? If I slip you the right date, can we share the winnings?”
“You know the date?”
He stood up. “I’ve got to make a flight. But go ahead and order something you like from the menu. I know you can’t read Chinese, so just tell them you want number seven.”
I thought about it a moment too long. “You mean it will be on August 7?” I shouted after him, but he was already out the door.