Written by Thomas Mangan
Jack’s day had gotten off to a great start and he had been smiling about it all morning. On his way to work he’d seen a patch of white flowers on the side of the road, and was looking forward to the drive home so he could determine what kind they were.
Like all of us, Jack viewed everything through the prism of his life experience. He was an adjunct math professor at a small college, so he often reduced things to their lowest common denominator. In the case of the white flowers, Jack thought about which white flowers he knew and which white flowers were blooming this time of year. He thought he had a pretty good idea of what kind they were, but he wanted to be sure.
Jack was teaching a couple of courses that summer and had to drive from the eastern suburb where he lived, to the western suburb where the college was located. It was the first time he had ever taught summer classes, and the first time he had ever seen what his commute looked like in the summertime. In some places it didn’t look anything like it did during the rest of the year.
It had been a long cold winter, snowing or raining every day for months on end. Then when spring came, it was cloudy all the time, even though it didn’t rain very much, so there hadn’t been much time to go outside and enjoy the sun. Then when summer finally came, it happened all at once bringing beautiful warm days, bright sunshine, birds and flowers. Life was good. Summer was here, there was no doubt about it, and the mass of white flowers Jack had seen by the roadside was just another sign that the gloomy weather was finally over.
After thinking about it on and off all day, he had whittled down the list of possibilities to just a few. The white flowers grew in dense patches as tall as shrubs and small trees. They were probably not choke cherries or magnolias because those were both spring-blooming trees. The white flowers probably weren’t bushes either because he’d noticed that all of the bushes and shrubs on campus were already covered with berries. The time for flowers on bushes was over.
Then Jack noticed the daisies in the flower bed outside his office and realized what he had seen that morning might have been either a mass of wild Ox-Eye daisies or Queen Anne’s lace. If the unusual flowers had been yellow or orange, like the wild lilies that grew in his area, he would have said they were probably lilies. But the patch was white.
He couldn’t get the white flowers out of his head. He had even thought about using them as an example in his class. They were studying probability theory and he thought it might be a good example of something happening even though the probability was low. What are the odds of a mass of tall white flowers blooming on the side of the highway?
As he drove home, Jack realized that although there were numerous beds of cultivated white daisies in front of houses along the way, he hadn’t seen a single wild daisy on the roadside. Virtually all of the white flowers he saw were Queen Anne’s lace. The probability was pretty high that the white patch had been either a large bed of cultivated daisies, possibly planted by the town, or a huge patch of Queen Anne’s lace. But then he remembered Giant Hogweed! That noxious white flower he’d heard about on the news. He worked through the problem in his mind and came up with what seemed to be a reasonable solution, so he relaxed and waited until he reached the flowers again.
As he got closer, he felt himself getting more and more excited. He kept his eyes on the road, but also kept glancing in the distance, in much the same way you glance ahead for the exit sign of an off-ramp you don’t often use. Then he saw them, far ahead and nothing more than a white patch in the middle of his windshield. But as he got closer, the white patch moved slowly toward the left edge of the windshield until finally he could see them clearly. He finally had the answer he’d been looking for all day. It wasn’t Queen Anne’s lace or Ox-Eye daisies; in fact it wasn’t white flowers at all. It was a big sheet of plastic that had blown into the branches at the bottom of a stand of small trees.
featured in our fall 2018 issue