I walked into the lobby of Evans Hall, got a name tag from the people sitting in front, and went into the back of the lecture hall, room 170. I looked around the room and saw Taylor Santiago, Pete Green, Charlie Watson, Mike Knepper, Sarah Winters, and Krista Curtis mingling about halfway down the room, so I walked over to sit near them. All of these people except Mike had been in my dorm last year, and some of them had invited me multiple times to come with them to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. I finally went with them about a month ago, and JCF’s large group meetings here in 170 Evans had become my Friday night routine.
“Hey, Greg,” Krista said, seeing me first. The others said hi to me as well.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Pretty good,” Taylor replied. “Are you coming to the car rally tonight?”
“Probably. I’ve never done a car rally before. How does it work?”
“You get clues, and you drive around to the places the clues tell you to go. Then people are hanging out afterward. There are prizes for the team that finishes first.”
“That’s kind of what I thought. It sounds fun.”
The large group meetings for JCF usually lasted about an hour and a half. The worship band played a few songs, with one of the staff making announcements after the first song. Then someone would give a talk, kind of like a sermon at a church service, with more music at the end. Cheryl, one of the staff, did tonight’s talk. After the band finished their last song, Cheryl got back up front, something that did not usually happen in a normal week. But this was not a normal week; the group had put together this car rally as a social event to take place after the meeting tonight.
“If you have a car, come up to the front of the room,” Cheryl said into the microphone. “Once you have enough people on your team to fill the car, go out to the lobby and get your clues. And you want to make sure you have at least one upperclassman on your team. We’re going to start at about 9:30.” It was a few minutes after nine now.
I did not know any upperclassmen. Scott Madison, the drummer who, like me, was also a tutor for the Learning Skills Center, was the upperclassman I was closest to knowing, since I knew his name and had said hi to him before. But it looked like Scott had his own car and was assembling his own team. Most of my friends were also assembling into teams; I saw Sarah and Krista leave with two older girls I did not know, and Taylor and Charlie left with two older boys. I retreated to a corner, watching people I knew form teams with people I did not know and proceed out of the room.
Pete and Mike, the two remaining people from the group I sat with, walked up to me about a minute later. “Greg?” Pete asked. “Are you on a team yet?”
“I’m driving, and I don’t have anyone on my team yet.”
“Can we join your team, then?”
“Mike was going to drive, but it looks like they have more drivers than they need.”
“Sounds good. Now we just need some upperclassmen.”
The room was emptying as more and more people either went home or got in their groups. Two girls walked up to us a few minutes later. One of them asked, “Are you guys still looking for people in your car? Do you have room for two more?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I can fit five.”
“I guess you’re on our team, then,” Mike told them.
“Great!” the girl said. “I’m Leah, and this is Autumn.”
“Nice to meet you,” I replied. “I’m Greg. Do you know these guys?” Leah and Autumn shook their heads no, and Pete and Mike introduced themselves.
The five of us walked to the lobby, where someone handed us two envelopes and instructed us not to open them until someone told us to. We waited with the other completed teams for about another five minutes until all the teams had formed and were ready.
“Listen up, everyone,” Cheryl announced at around 9:30. “There will be five places you need to go, and you’ll get the next clue at each place. People will be hanging out at the last place. The envelope that says ‘don’t open unless you are stuck,’ don’t open that unless you are absolutely stuck and you want to give up. That tells you where the party is, but if you open it, you won’t win the prize. The other envelope, the first clue, open that now. Go!”
I heard the sound of about fifteen to twenty envelopes opening as people began reading the first clue and running to their cars. I opened the clue and read it:
One row for virgin and one row for extra virgin, both end in a but… STOP!
Virgin? But stop? What did any of this mean? I handed the paper to Pete, who read it and looked about as confused as I was. “Let’s go to the car,” I said. I jogged to the parking lot, since after all this was a race, and motioned for the other four to follow me.
“One row for virgin and one row for extra virgin, both end in a but, stop,” I said out loud once we were in the car. “Do any of you know what that means?”
“I have no idea,” Pete said.
“The Venus!” Mike shouted. “That’s it!”
“What’s The Venus?” I asked.
“The coffee shop.”
“Where is that?”
“B Street, between First and Second. There’s this sign outside that’s supposed to look like that painting of Venus in the seashell.”
“Let’s go!” I said. As I drove my way out of the parking lot toward downtown, I realized that I still had no idea how Mike made the connection between this coffee shop and the extra virgins and the but stop. “So what do the two rows of virgins in the clue mean?” I asked.
“The painting. Venus emerged from the sea as a virgin,” Mike explained. “And they have a patio outside with outdoor seating. Maybe two rows of seats?” I was not entirely on board with Mike’s interpretation of the clue, but he was familiar with this place and I was not, so in the absence of any other ideas, it was worth checking out.
I followed Mike’s directions and pulled over to the side of the road next to the building he pointed out. The Venus was the kind of unique coffee shop that belonged in a college town like Jeromeville. It was common in downtown areas of cities this size around here to have restaurants and offices in buildings that had once been single-family homes, and The Venus appeared to be such a building. The front yard had been paved and converted to outdoor seating, with towering trees planted decades ago when this was a house providing shade. A sign was painted to look like a replica of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, with Venus covering her lady parts in the same pose, but emerging from a cup of coffee instead of a seashell. One of the other goddesses in the painting held a banner which said “The Venus – Coffee House & Pub.” The place appeared to be open; it was Friday night, after all.
“I’ll go get the clue,” Mike said, hopping out of the car. Mike looked around the patio for a minute, then went inside.
“I don’t know if this is it,” I said.
“Me either,” Pete agreed.
“This place looks cool,” Leah observed. “I’ve never been here.”
“I haven’t either,” I said. “I don’t like coffee.”
“You don’t like coffee?”
“Why not?” Autumn asked. “I love coffee!”
“I just don’t like the taste. I’ve tried coffee drinks with other stuff in them, like mochas, and I can still taste the coffee. I feel like I’m missing out on the coffee shop experience because of that.”
“You can get other drinks,” Leah suggested.
“I know. It’s just kind of sad not being able to do things that everyone else does.”
“No one is here,” Mike said as he arrived back at the car. “This isn’t it.”
“You looked everywhere?” Pete asked.
“Yeah. Inside, outside, out back, I didn’t see anyone here from JCF. I even asked a few people who looked like they were waiting for someone.”
“So where should I go now?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Mike said as the rest of us looked confused.
“We must be missing something in the clue,” I said, holding the paper and reading it again. “‘One row for virgin and one row for extra virgin, both end in a but… STOP!’ What’s a but stop?”
“I wonder if it’s supposed to be ‘bus stop,’” Leah suggested. “Is there a bus stop here?”
“There’s one down there,” Autumn said, pointing a block down the street.
“There are hundreds of bus stops in Jeromeville,” I said. “How do we know which one it means? And there isn’t really a prominent bus stop here, outside The Venus. That must be important, or else it wouldn’t be written on the clue. And why is STOP! capitalized?”
“Virgin,” Mike said, thinking out loud. “Maybe something to do with the Virgin Mary? A Catholic church? Is there a Catholic church called Virgin something around here?”
“There’s the Newman Center, and there’s St. John’s,” I answered. “No virgin.”
“We don’t have any better ideas, so maybe we should just drive past there,” Leah said.
The Newman Center was only a few blocks away from The Venus. I continued up B Street to Fifth, then turned right. I parked in front; the building looked completely deserted, and no one was outside. St. John’s was about half a mile away on the corner of B Street and 15th, and it looked equally deserted, both from the street and from the parking lot.
“I’m out of ideas,” I said. “Unless anyone can think of anything, I’ll just drive around aimlessly and hope we see something.”
“I guess,” Pete replied.
“Leah? Autumn? Do you guys know anything? You’re the upperclassmen in the group.”
“Upperclassmen?” Leah repeated. “We’re freshmen.”
“Wait. Weren’t we supposed to have an upperclassman on our team?”
“We thought you guys were upperclassmen. You look older.”
“Uh-oh,” I said. “We’re all sophomores. That’s why our group doesn’t get this. The upperclassmen know something we don’t.”
“I think they just said that to make sure that someone in your group knows their way around Jeromeville,” Pete said. “And you know your way around.”
“I don’t know.” I was getting more frustrated by the minute. It was 10:02, and we had made no progress in half an hour. The clues were probably all inside jokes among the people who had been involved with JCF for a long time, and I had no idea what extra virgins and the but stop were because I was on the outside of the cliques. However, Pete and Mike did not understand the clues either, despite being better connected within JCF.
“Virgin Megastore,” Autumn said as I drove around Jeromeville aimlessly. “That big record store. Is there one here?”
“I think there’s one in Capital City,” I replied. “But the directions specifically said all the clues were in Jeromeville. They’re not going to make us cross the Drawbridge.”
I continued driving aimlessly around Jeromeville, looking for anything that might have to do with virgins or a but stop, whatever that was. I drove through the parking lots in the two shopping centers near my apartment. I drove up Andrews to where it meets G Street near the pond. I drove back down G Street toward downtown, driving slowly, looking at every landmark and sign. We made of small talk while we drove around. I learned that Leah was majoring in psychology, and that Autumn had not decided on a major yet. I also learned that Mike was from Morgantown, about a half hour drive from my hometown of Plumdale.
“Did you go to Morgantown High?” I asked Mike.
“They played my high school for our Homecoming football game senior year. You guys beat us pretty badly.”
“Did you play football?”
“No. I just watched a bunch of games.”
“I didn’t really follow football,” Mike said.
After I had driven up and down several streets downtown, Leah and Autumn decided that it was time for them to go home and go to bed. “Can you drop us off?”
“Okay,” I said. “Where do you live?”
“Reynolds. In the North Area.”
“Sure.” I drove west down Fifth Street, left on Colt Avenue, and made an immediate right into the long narrow parking area separating the North Residential Area from Fifth Street and residential neighborhoods off campus. I stopped when I got close to Reynolds Hall, one of four identical five-story dormitories that were the tallest residential buildings on campus. “Good night,” I said. “It was nice meeting you.”
“You too!” Leah exclaimed.
“Bye,” Autumn said, smiling and waving.
After they left, I had a thought. “If it is ‘bus stop’ instead of ‘but stop,’ maybe the clue is either at the MU or the Barn, since that’s where the buses stop on campus.”
“It’s worth a try,” Pete said. I turned around and drove to the Memorial Union bus station. Then, since cars are not allowed in the campus core, I backtracked all the way to Leah and Autumn’s dorm, turned onto campus on Andrews Road, and worked my way from there to the parking lot closest to the Barn. No one was handing out clues at either place.
“This night has been a bust so far,” I said, looking at the clock. 10:36. “It’s been over an hour, and we’ve made no progress. And now we lost forty percent of our team.”
“It’s just a game,” Mike said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Keep driving, I guess,” Pete suggested.
I did keep driving. I worked my way around the west and south edges of campus back to downtown, looking for anything that might have to do with virgins. I drove under the railroad tracks on Cornell Boulevard, past Murder Burger and over the freeway. I continued east on Cornell to the easternmost edge of Jeromeville, then north on Bruce Boulevard across the freeway to where it curves around to the west and becomes Coventry Boulevard. I was out of ideas, Pete and Mike and I were out of small talk, and by the time I had driven all the way back across Jeromeville to the west, it was after eleven o’clock, and we were ready to give up.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t figure out the clue,” I said. I had failed my team miserably
“That’s okay,” Pete replied. “Are you ready to open the envelope that says ‘Do Not Open?’”
“Sure,” I said. Resigned to my fate, I opened the envelope and removed the paper inside. “‘1640 Valdez Street,’” I read. “I know Valdez Street. That’s in South Jeromeville.”
“I think that’s the house where Shawn Yang and Brian Burr and those senior guys live,” Pete said. “They must be hosting the after party. But I kind of just want to go home now.”
“Me too,” Mike said. “Can you just take us back to the parking lot by Evans?”
“Sure,” I answered. “I’m still going to go to the party.”
“I hope it’s fun,” Pete said.
After I drove back to campus and dropped off Mike and Pete, I headed back to South Jeromeville, the same way I went earlier. I did not know these guys who lived on Valdez Street, but hopefully the rest of my friends at JCF would be at this party.
I walked up to the door and knocked. A tall upperclassman with reddish-brown hair answered the door and said, “Hey, come on in. You made it.”
“Kinda,” I said. “We got stuck and had to open the envelope. The rest of my group just wanted to go home.” I remembered meeting this guy last month, the first time I came to JCF; his name was Brian, and he was on the UJ track and field team. I made a connection in my mind; Pete had mentioned that a senior named Brian Burr lived in this house. This was probably the Brian he was talking about.
Taylor saw me walk in and waved. He was with Charlie, Sarah, and Krista, the rest of the people I sat with earlier. “Greg!” he said. “We were just taking off. Where were you?”
“I’ve been driving around this whole time. I had to open the Do Not Open envelope.”
“Which clue did you get stuck on?”
“The first one! We never found anything!”
“You never even got to the first checkpoint?” Taylor repeated.
“We were supposed to have an upperclassman in our group, and it was just me and Pete and Mike Knepper and two freshmen! Whatever inside joke the juniors and seniors have that has to do with extra virgins, I’m not in on it.”
“Olives,” Sarah said. “Like extra virgin olive oil.”
I paused, trying to assimilate this new piece of information. My regimen of cereal, lunch meat, and frozen dinners did not include olive oil anywhere. But now that Sarah mentioned it, I remembered having seen the term “extra virgin” on the label on a bottle of olive oil at the grocery store. “Olive Way,” I said. “That path on the west side of campus. Two rows of olive trees. Is that where it was? What’s a but stop?”
“But stop?” Sarah asked. I pulled the clue out of my pocket and showed it to her. “I think that was supposed to say bus stop,” she explained. “The clue was at the bus stop by Olive Way and Darlington Apartments.”
“That makes so much sense now,” I said. I would learn later that Brian Burr and some of his roommates here on Valdez Street had lived in those apartments the previous year. One of them probably wrote the clue.
“We’ll see you later,” Taylor said, shaking my hand. “Have a good weekend.”
I looked around me at the rest of the people in the room. About twelve people remained in the house, but this party definitely had the look of a party that was winding down. No one else that I knew was here. I tried talking to a few other people, but mostly I just felt embarrassed that I had not even solved the first clue. I also felt like I had missed a fun time of hanging out, since most people arrived an hour ago.
I left the party about fifteen minutes later, feeling disappointed. This night was supposed to be fun, and it just left me frustrated, because I could not even solve the first clue. Even my skill of knowing my way around Jeromeville could not save us from that typo or my lack of familiarity with olive oil. I still felt on the outside of the cliques. But I met two new friends, Leah and Autumn, and I got to know Mike better. I had only been part of JCF for a month, and I was still getting to know people. And I was learning more about God and the Bible. All of these were positive things that would take time to grow. Reaching a goal is nice, but sometimes the things that make life worth living happen while wandering around lost.
Olive Way, 2020