Adam Weeble stares at the monitor of his Ambra 486 computer. He sighs. His sepia-brown eyes dart across the screen, counting the words he’s written. He sighs again.
Thirteen words. It’s 1:52 p.m., and he’s got 13 words. At 4 p.m. those words and at least 1287 others—every one of them polished like a malachite pendant—are due on his editor’s desk.
Only two hours and eight minutes, only 128 short minutes, only 7,680 rapid-fire seconds, only 7,680,000 teensy milliseconds to craft a “Real Time” column for the Washington Post Magazine. Weeble tugs the collar of his Brooks Brothers pinpoint oxford and readjusts his burnt-sienna paisley Geoffrey Beene tie. He chugs lukewarm decaf latte from a Starbucks mug balanced precariously on an Okidata A-6000 fax. A wayward cuticle catches his eye. He rips the corner of skin, and blood floods out, a tsunami incarnadine.
He looks back at the screen and reads what he’s written: “Cynthia Glump, who processes Clean Water Act complaints for the Environmental Protection Agency,” he says, intoning each syllable like a precious orchid.
“No! No! No! It’s wrong,” he berates himself. He scratches his thinning dishwater-blond hair. Two dozen, or perhaps 30, flakes of dandruff float onto the lapels of his midnight-blue Jos. A. Bank suit jacket.
He bolts to his feet. His slate-gray chair careens across the cubicle, slamming into the Bruce Hornsby poster and toppling the photo of his two pugs—Alsop and Lippmann—onto the raw umber carpet. Weeble spies his editor strolling across the Post newsroom. “Hey, Greg! Greg! C’m’ere a sec,” Weeble barks.
Greg Fungo—a narrow man in a forest-green tweed Barney’s blazer, pasta-colored Dockers, and faux-Timberland boots with peanut-yellow laces—perambulates over to Weeble’s cubicle. “What can I do for you, Adam?” he asks. Fungo speaks in the baritone of a man used to handling tough problems.
“Take a look at this, would you, Greg. Something…” Weeble pauses for a few seconds. “Something—I don’t know—something’s missing from my lede.”
Fungo bends over the Ambra and reads the lede out loud. “Cynthia Glump, who processes Clean Water Act complaints for the Environmental Protection Agency.” Fungo places his hand on his chin, pensively. Seven tiny chalk-colored hairs—stubble from a day without shaving—are visible between his ring finger and pinkie.
“You’re right,” the editor says, “You’re absolutely right. There’s a little something missing. But I’m not sure what it is.”
Fungo reads it again, then paces for 47 seconds around the newsroom, staring at the ceiling’s subtly nacreous linoleum tiles. “I’ve got it, Adam!” he shouts. “A verb! A verb! A verb is what’s missing!”
Weeble starts as if struck by a Black Talon hollow-point .45 bullet. He nods slowly at the revelation. “A verb—that’s exactly right, Greg,” Weeble says. The writer begins pounding maniacally on the keyboard.
Fungo reads over Weeble’s shoulder as he types. “Cynthia Glump, who processes Clean Water Act complaints for the Environmental Protection Agency, ruffles through a weighty stack of EPL-357s. She smooths her dusky-rose rayon-and-silk blouse, shakes her head, and glances at her officemate, who wears a light-mauve mock turtleneck, a Laura Ashley knockoff flower-print skirt, and roasted-chestnut colored sabots. ‘Looks like another busy one, Leora,’ says Glump. ‘More than 200 EPL-357s, and it’s only 9:15. Guess we should start doing the PURPA identification management slips if we’re going to meet the deadline for CWA/CAA filings.’”
Weeble stops and looks up at his editor. “W.S.Y.?” he asks. It’s office shorthand for “What say you?”
“That’s it,” Fungo answers. “You got it. That’s your lede. It’s a grabber, buddy. This piece is going to write itself.”
“Thanks for the push, Greg,” Adam says cheerfully, before adding, “Damn, I’ve got to take a serious leak.”
Fungo walks off, and Weeble strides across the office, navigating the labyrinth of opalescent peach cubicles to the men’s bathroom. He relieves himself in the urinal, arcing a xanthous stream—a shaft of liquid gold—into the eggshell-white porcelain basin. Weeble zips his fly, washes his hands with salmon-pink liquid soap and warm water, and dries them on two-ply glaucous paper towels.
It’s already 2:20 p.m., but the muse has inspired him. He dashes off a section on Cynthia Glump’s coffee break, a pair of pithy paragraphs on how she sorts applications by region. He describes Cynthia’s puzzlement over the handwriting on a dumping complaint: Is it “dioxide” or “dioxin”? Cynthia guesses dioxide and chucks the form in the “Lowest Priority” basket.
By 3:47, nearly 1300 words glow with alabaster brilliance on the screen. He keys in words number 1314, 1315, 1316, and 1317—which happen to be painstakingly collates the Xeroxes—slides his metallic-aqua mouse along his moldy-bacon-colored mousepad and drags down the print icon.
The Hewlett-Packard L-5000 printer, which rests on the desk next to an albescent nerf basketball, hums to life behind him. At 3:58, the fifth and final page of “Filing Line” rolls through the burnished-silver platen. Weeble snatches the still-warm manuscript and walks it over to Fungo’s office. Weeble tosses the article on the editor’s desk and flashes Fungo an insouciant smile. “There it is, Greg,” Weeble says. “Read it and weep.”
David Plotz’s last article for the magazine was “Home Improvement,” which chronicled a young couple’s effort to choose a wallpaper pattern for their guest room. He also wrote “Red, Hot, Then Blue,” an account of a podiatrist lasering a 67-year-old grandmother’s corns.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.