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“The witch hops on her bike and rides through….…”
"Stop, stop, stop this annoying drivel," I said hitting the eject button and not understanding why my sister sent me this crappy fairy tale cd book. I pulled up to the fifth stop light on my commute, and I wondered why a New York publicist would think a hag on a bike could ease the stress of driving in Boston traffic? How could a fairy tale relieve a daily headache that the dullest job in the world gave me? And really, who writes a story where there's a hag on a bike?
I wished I could ride a bike to work or in my case walk since my bike was stolen. Driving boredom led me to calculate commute times as a distraction and kept me from counting how many stop lights I had left. My forty-five-mile drive to work took me an hour and half when I left my apartment at seven am. If I got out of the office building and into my car by 5:15, the same drive home took me 1 hour and two minutes. Though, neither of these calculations took into account where I parked my car and how long of a walk to it. Though, come to think about it, most people preferred any book on cd to counting stop lights, but I found stress relief in putting order to chaos and in controlling minutes.
Today, I managed to sneak out, down the backstairs, at 4:30 pm and was in my car by 4:45. This meant I could be at my favorite brewpub at the edge of Vinsula by ...5:45. And there it is, The Storm and Tree and look a parking place in front. The pub is just two blocks from my dinky apartment and this parking spot would decrease my commute by ten minutes. Perfect, if I rush, I can change out of my personal assistant clothes and into jeans and a t-shirt. I’d be back at the pub just when the Thursday night group arrived at six pm.
Climbing out of the car, I grabbed the cd book and walked to the trash can on the sidewalk. While glancing at the bicycle on the cd cover, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jack bike by in his lab coat. Jack was a constant in the Thursday night group.
He abandoned his bike and I saw that his normally brown face was ashen. I thought I heard him mumble, “Oak tree.” Dropping the idea of changing, I followed Jack and enter the pub dressed, yet again, in my boring blue secretary suit. Fortunately, my desire to control minutes of my day did not prevent me from switching gears. Organization and changing directions are the subtexts to what a personal assistant does.
The sweet smell of hops, hot wings, and pretzels wafted as I entered. The smell relaxed me, momentarily, until the sight of Jack slumped in a chair at our regular round table snapped me back into attention to my friends colorless face.
“Any personal assistants positions opening up at the university, Jack?” I asked as I sat down. It was the first thing I said to him every Thursday. I didn’t want to start with ‘you look like shit’ before I knew why he was still in his lab coat and why he looked like he was barely alive.
A pitcher of the seasonal ale was placed before us with glasses. When you were a regular at The Storm and Tree, the service was excellent. Not knowing what else to do, I pour him a pint.
Taking the pint, he brought it to his lips and gulped it in big noisy swallows. He set the pint down which only had a residue of foam coating the sides. I poured him another pint and placed it in front of him.
"No, no, no," he whispered. I pulled the pint away from him.
"Yes, pint. No, well, no is another matter entirely," he said as he pulled the pint back in front of him and drank the entirety of it down again.
Jack was a bit of an oddity to me. He seemed to have a normal scientist position in a university as a Meteorologist working in the College of Weather. Though, when he talks about meteorology doesn’t fit into what, I consider, a meteorological lab assistant should say. For example, if I asked him if there will be rain this weekend, he will say, “look at the Oak leaves.” I know that farmers read such signs for weather, but why wouldn’t a meteorologist tell me about high and low air pressure?
I’ve never been in a university building though it is the reason Vinsula exists. Three names above doors indicate a university building, but I didn’t understand their meaning. The strange words had random capitalizations and didn’t appear to be names of a particular college nor names of people who donated to have them built. At first, I assumed they would be Latin, but the Latin I knew didn't put a capitalization three letters into a word. Whenever I asked Jack about the university, he smiled and said the CIA adage, "I would have to kill you if I told you."
After he drank the second pint, I hoped for some obscure explanation of his shell-shocked look. Pouring myself a pint while ignoring Jack's empty glass, I felt I may never know why he was whispering “no, no, no” and staring blankly.
Maybe, he would let loose some sort of clue about his mysterious day when the others arrived. I looked at my watch. It was five minutes past six.
Jack was George's friend. George brought him to our Thursday night beer and greasy food fest just over nine months ago. Our group had formed over the last one and a half years because we started to slowly recognize a similar look. It said how disappointment our jobs were after our brilliant college careers. At least, that’s how I saw it.
I moved into my apartment a year and half ago and came to the pub for dinner. Before I finished the bratwurst and sauerkraut, I meet Tom and we started dating right away. The pub was where we meant every Thursday after work and the group formed around us. I’m the only one who complains about work though they all give me sympathetic stares. Generally, our conversations are about the pool game we are playing or just random stuff which is never serious. After my breakup with Tom, Thursday night at the pub became my only social outlet.
Jack was different from me. He seemed to be doing what he wanted to do, and I wasn’t sure when he graduated college or even where he went. He talked a lot on Thursday nights, but it never seemed to contain any pertinent information let alone Jack related background information.
"Hey, Sally," I said while rolling my eyes towards Jack.
"Wow, Jack, who shot your dog?" said Sally.
Jack looked up from staring at his empty pint glass and said,"I don't have a dog. The police came into my lab and made me go to a crime scene.'" When he said crime scene, he actually finger quoted crime scene.
Sally took a glass and poured what was left of the pitcher. She waved the pitcher over her head without even a glance to see if a server saw the gesture. She never looked. And, I never saw a server recognizing these gestures though a fresh pitcher would show up within minutes and, miraculously, with a plate of hot wings. I think if she puts up a pinky during the gesture then we get frosted pints.
She will get some sort of information out of Jack.
"Jack, the police, you, 'crime scene"?" she asked.
"Yeah, the 'crime scene" was at Pathak Park…” he was about to tell his story of the "crime scene" but in walked George and Oscar.
There were a few others that came and went with this Thursday group though this was the core. These were the faces I saw as I went down 8 flights of stairs, sneaked out of work, with my shoes in my hand, to beat the traffic, and sit here.
As they sat, the full extent of the pitcher waved appeared. Two servers carried a brew pub bounty: two pitchers of beer, one dark and one amber, one large plate of wings, a bowl soft pretzels (not the large ones you get in the mall but hand built ones about the size of a cake donut), and a frosted mug for each of us. Sally’s picture wave was magical.
"Great," Sally said. "We are all here and the fun can begin. The professor had an out-of-lab experience today."
We all turned to Jack.
"Jack, you look like shit. What happened?" ask George who was always concerned about each of us.
"I was in my lab working on ... It is not important what I was working on," he said looking over his shoulder which was a frequent habit of his. “Two police officers walk in and asked, 'are you Jack Vijara.' I said 'yes.' One took my arm as the other said, 'You are wanted at a crime scene in Pathak Park.'
I asked while freeing my arm from the officer 'Am I being arrested?'
'No, sir,’ replied both officers.
'Do I have to go with you?' I asked.
The two officers turned to each other with a look of why are we taking him
and the first officer said, 'We were sent here by Esme Pustaka to have you escorted to the crime scene.'
Since Esme sent me, I, of course, didn't hesitate.
The table looked at each and I wondered if any of us understood who Esme
was. Esme must be a higher up in the lab or university, but I didn’t know that name.
"Normally, I would walk but the officers insisted we drive. Within a block of the park, people were being turned away. There was and most likely still is one block radius of barricades manned by police around the park."
We had all set down our beer and no one reached for another morsel.
"The first thing I notice was a fine dust in the air. One officer handed me a mask and directed,'This way Professor Vijara.'
Picture the large oak tree in the park. The one lit with spot lights and is so large you imagine it sprouted before Europeans landed at Plymouth. I was having a hard time seeing and breathing in the mask.
First, I spotted Esme. She had her hands on her hips and was back lite, but I knew it was her. What I should have seen behind her was the oak. What I saw was half of the oak and a jagged fissure from the tree heading back through the park towards the street. The fissure ended 10 feet from the sidewalk. As I looked at half of the oak and the fissure, Esme threw questions at me I couldn’t quite hear. Then, she started to walk along the fissure and motioned me to follow. When we reached the edge of the park, she pulled off her mask and said, 'If the meteorology college was responsible for this, you’re through.'
I asked,”Why do you think it was the meteorological college?”
“Because all the eyewitness accounts told of a lighting strike before the
dust particles and the disappearance of half the oak,” Jack replied and
finished his story.
“I didn’t know how to respond. In order to look unflustered in front of Esme, I
looked back up the fissure and said the only thing I thought. I said, 'Earthquake, Geophysics college. I know of no lightning experiments.'
Jack hung his head and whispered, “Idiot. I’ll be sent to the University of
Photosynthesis in Hawaii.”
George poured him a beer and broke the stunned silence of the group, "But what about the dust in the air. Where did that come from?"
"There were no storms today and definitely not this afternoon. It was a
perfect spring day,” Sally said.
"Why not say an earthquake and the College of Geophysics?”Oscar asked.
”Lightning storms happen in late summer and early fall; not early spring," I said.
"Do you think the tree will survive at all? Is someone going to count its rings?" Sally asked.
Jack put up his hand stopping us from asking more questions. He simply said, “The College of Geophysics did not cause half of the tree to disappear nor the earth to split. I’m sure it was Whether that caused it. I should have told Esme that the dust and the College of Biology were more likely the cause of the ‘crime’”.
“Wouldn’t it be the College of Particle Physics?” I said not knowing if this university had that college. The others seemed to understand the significance of his story and what Jack’s statement - it was weather that caused it - meant. What kind of weather could cause half a tree to disappear?
“I suppose it would depend on the type of particles,” said George as he glanced to Sally.
Oscar looked at me and put his hand on top of mine and said, ”I’m sure it had nothing to do with the university at all.”
Sally turned to me and said, “Vinsula always calls on the university for every little thing. The city council never wants to spend city money.” The three of them stared at me and smiled like I was an innocent child who had overheard an inappropriate adult conversation.
“Hey, look a pool table is still open,” said George as he nudged Sally. “Let’s play, Sally.”
“How was your day, Maggie,” asked Oscar. “I saw your car in a great parking spot. Too bad, you'll have to lose it in the morning.”
With Jack’s story done, we moved into our normal Thursday night routine though stories of lightening and work blunders crept into our general conversation. Jack’s complexion returned to normal after a couple of hot wings. The group had moved on, but I couldn’t fully get out of mind Pathak Park and the missing half of an oak tree.
As I walked home, I needed to see what was left of the old oak tree. I felt a loss; a year ago, it had been part of my morning jog. It was my routine to jog around the tree on my way back through the park. Pathak Park is five blocks from my apartment. I passed by my apartment and kept going. How could Vinsula, a small village hidden in the warren of towns around Boston, be changed in the space of a work day?
I have never seen a map of Vinsula. Usually, I had no trouble mapping in my head a New England village. I imagine, Vinsula started out as a village with a town square, town church, and shops. Radiating out from the square would be neighborhoods. Most New England villages meander outwards from the town square with houses and city buildings and then schools being the other important areas of the city. Vinsula had no church steeple or really a town square. The Pathak Park was a large green area, but there weren’t shops or any important buildings surrounding it. There weren't even significant university buildings around it.
I wondered why I was attracted to live in Vinsula, because there was only one connection. My Aunt had brought me here two months after my parents had died in a plane crash in Europe. My sister was twelve years older than me and was out of the house. I haven’t seen much of her since our parent’s death. She had a baby girl just as I was entering kindergarten; I never meet the father.
Spending my school years with Aunt Elsie, she took me on these short little trips around different small villages in New England. We never went to the big cities. Vinsula was the first trip. We wandered around, went into a few shops, and had a picnic in the park. She left me in a bookshop saying that she had an errand she had to do on her own. I nodded that I would be fine. We drove the two hours home to Swansea without a word.
This village stuck in my head through the years and when I landed my first out-of-college position, I came to Vinsula to look for an apartment. Aunt Elsie always had little sayings and one of them was; “If a place haunts you, you better haunt it.” I haunted Vinsula for three months until I found the apartment I’m in now. Meeting Tom on the day I moved into my apartment settled the idea that Vinsula was a good choice. When he dumped me six months into the relationship, I thought we work well as a couple. When Sally said he had moved to Spain where some of his family lived, I still hadn’t an idea as to why he broke up with me.
I reached the edge of the park and astonished that it didn't look as Jack
had described it. It looked normal.
“Odd,” said Sally who is standing right next to me. I hadn’t noticed her or anyone on the edge of the park.
“I was expecting barriers and a great rift in the ground,” I said.
“Yes, that is odd, but I was referring to us standing here at the edge of the park together,” said Sally.
“Do you live close?” I asked.
“Yes, all of us live in Vinsula. That’s why we meet at the pub every Thursday. Let’s see the oak tree or at least what is left of it,” said Sally and started to walk.
I started to stammer I thought it had to do with everyone hating their jobs, but I realized I really didn’t know much about the personal lives of the group. Jack had been the only one to say that he worked at a lab in the university. I caught up to Sally.
“Did you jog by the oak this morning?” asked Sally.
“No, I haven’t jogged since the breakup.”
“Really,” she said. “Just as I had thought.”
“I know I have put on a few pounds but…"
“Maggie, don’t be silly. You look great. The tree. Don’t you see that it is gone? Jack said that it was split in half and that there was a fissure from it to the edge of the park. It is all gone.”
“Gone?” I said as I walk back and forth across grass where the oak should have been.
I was about to get on my hands and knees to inspect the ground when Sally said, “Work is going to be crazy tomorrow. I wonder who has the tree.”
“You work at the university too?”
“Yes, everyone does but you,” said Sally.
“What does George and Oscar do? What is your job?” I asked dumbfounded that I knew so little about my friends. Was I really so self involved?
“Technically, Oscar doesn’t work for the university,” Sally said. “I am going to have to get some sleep if I am going to deal with the tornado of paper this disappearing Oak tree is going cause.”
“Where would the oak be,” I said to Sally’s back.
“Good night, Maggie.”
“Good night,” I said and turned to walk home.
When I reached the curb and looked at the corner building, I saw the lintel above the building and its three names. Would I ever go beyond looking at the doors and lintels of the university and step inside. In Vinsula, I had only been in restaurants and coffee shops.
I walked around the edge of the park looking at the buildings. All of the corner buildings seemed to be university buildings except one. It was a gallery and the lintel was bare though the building appeared to have once been part of the university.
I heard one chime and then another: two AM. Actually, it was 1:40 because the chimes were always 20 minutes early. Aunt Elsie echoed in my head, “A women shouldn’t venture into parks after midnight.” I had walked to, through, and around one well past midnight. It was time to go home. Morning and my boring job were six hours away.