Scenes from a party: an unnecessary beard; a knot of people in the kitchen; chatter; cold draft by the door; wine glasses bedazzled with baubles; cheese and crackers.
Extension Pete found himself at a departmental get together. Inane chit chat with coworkers was coupled with an inability to find a comfortable place to sit and an endless wanderlust to flit from conversation to conversation with people he normally avoided in the Ivory Tower environ.
Conversation finally exhausted, Pete turned to examination of the artifacts on display in the house-museum; priceless family kitsch, collections of items reminiscent of a lifestyle past, relics standing as silent boasts of faraway travels and grand adventures. Suddenly the universe twisted on itself and Pete was struck with a strong feeling of déjà vu. In the background of a photo on the wall—featuring happy revelers of a new year’s eve party four years past, one wearing a very encouraging dress—enclosed in a glass display case was an old fashion dry goods balance holding a giant old dictionary on one side, and a fossil ammonite on the other. A sign behind the dictionary declared “POSSUM” in tall, bold, golden letters that stood out against the earth tone surroundings.
Pete had a moment of panic, he had seen this before, the case, the balance, the ammonite. Why, how? But as suddenly as the panic came, it left. The slow gears of his genius mind (so he saw it) physically forced his confused muscles to move his head to the left where, across the room he saw that selfsame glass display case. There was the balance. There was the dictionary. There was the ammonite. “POSSUM” was completely obscured by the dictionary but when we squatted down he was able to read, “POSSUM brand U.S. NO. 2 Porto Rican Sweet Potatoes. Packed and Shipped by La Haye Bros. Leonville, LA.” Ah, the advertisements of yesteryear had flair. A portly young possum with a curly tail had placed its front foot protectively on a fat young yam.
The meat (not possum) came off the grill and into the kitchen. Suddenly people were heaping foodstuffs onto plates, moving through the line holding glasses, utensils, napkins, trying not to spill or slosh. People settled and Pete tucked into an interesting corn-based casserole. Conversation ebbed and flowed and finally hit upon the wine. Everyone agreed it was good. Where was it from? Temecula Valley, southern California. Funny story, a case had been bought years before, some drunk, then forgotten and the remaining two bottles were only rediscovered a few nights ago. Hurrah! Even stranger the crate seemed to have all but vanished, only a thin outer veneer was left, the slats could be crushed like pie crust.
At this Pete stood up, mid-bite. “Give me a second,” he said staring into nothingness. Then, a declaration: “I believe I have simultaneously discovered and solved a mystery!” Conversation stopped and all eyes focused on the buggy brainiac. “The mystery is, why is the dictionary getting lighter?” With a dramatic, sweeping motion he pointed an accusatory finger at the scale in the display case. Everyone shifted their gaze. “You can see in the picture on the wall,” shifting digit cum pointer, “that four years ago the dictionary and the ammonite were at the same level, you can read ‘POSSUM’ clearly above the dictionary. But now, the ammonite has sunk and the dictionary has risen. ‘POSSUM’ is obscured. The dictionary is lighter.”
Pete paused to let everyone work it out for themselves. The balance hadn’t broken, the stone ammonite wouldn’t have gotten heavier, so clearly this mess was all the dictionary’s fault.
“And, I have solved the mystery,” he paused, and with extreme elocution stated, “Cryptotermes brevis,” another pause, “Walker.”
Mostly puzzled looks, but at least one “Ah!” of understanding from the far right.
“Cryptotermes brevis,” stated Pete as explanation, “is a drywood termite; it doesn’t require contact with moisture or the ground. Subsequently they keep to themselves and can happily exist in an isolated piece of wood for quite a long time. They can’t survive in the wild here, but sometimes get shipped in. Their schtick is to completely hollow out whatever they are living in but leave a thin outer veneer. You don’t know they are there until you grasp their abode and it crumbles…” he shifted his eyes to the host, “like pie crust. The termites were in the wine crate years ago. They exhausted their food supply and moved on, some made it to the dictionary where they have been happily censuring the English language, one word at a time. Let us away to the other room and celebrate my victory.”
A cluster or curious gathered around and after opening the case Pete gingerly lifted the dictionary’s “lid”. A network of tunnels was revealed, full of scurrying, fat, white termites. Blunt faced soldiers with dark black heads heaved onto the outer lip, antennae twirling, spoiling for a fight. Gasps, congratulations all around.
Turning to the crowd Extension Pete said, “And this shall forever be known as The Case of the Disappearing Dictionary!”