Every spring he went, haunting the woods, stooped and mumbling to himself, setting the dogs to bark and outraging the homeowners to the point they tacked “No Trespassing” signs to trees and made calls to the sheriff. Still he went, furtively now, timing his hunt for when people were at work, escaping from the neighborhood in the early evening light, sometimes a bit later, giving one or two of them the ass end view of his pick-up truck tooling down the road.
I know all this because I’ve lived in these parts for some seventy years now, and Mushroom Dave had been gathering morels for the last thirty. That, and I was deputy sheriff on reserve, putting in my hours answering the phone and taking down complaints. Based on the number of calls I fielded about Mushroom, it seemed all those homeowners in the new addition thought about was catching him red-handed, and giving him a piece of their disturbed minds. I warned him, I did. But Mushroom Dave was single minded; mushrooms were his blood.
Saturdays, during mushroom season, he could be found at the crack of dawn trundling his cart of mushrooms through the farmer’s market, stopping and stalling to speak with this person or that person. He could talk the leg off a donkey when he was in the mood. Folks began calling him Mushroom Dave in order to distinguish him from the other fellows called Dave, you know, “Is Dave here yet?” “What Dave?” “Mushroom Dave.” Like that.
After a while we simply called him Mushroom. Chefs from the fancier restaurants in Iowa City and Davenport dropped thirty bucks or more for a pound of Mushroom’s morels, good money by any measure. Otherwise he collected his disability for a busted back from Oscar Meyer. I guessed he squeezed by well enough paying taxes on the garage his mama left him, with a couple of heated rooms on the second floor, all that was left after the estate debts were paid, that and his truck and a good John Deere riding mower he used when he rented himself out to cut people’s lawns.
It’s only the past five years that Mushroom had to sneak around to collect his morels, ever since a number of the old families sold out to developers who proceeded to build the new additions, big houses that came with parcels of gorgeous land with creeks running through them and woods full of elm trees — prime mushroom territory. The people who bought these places came from the cities and from out of state, house-proud yuppies, you know, with a heightened awareness of any trespasser. They didn’t understand someone like Mushroom Dave.
The first time he ran into trouble was with a homeowner and five or six of his friends that came at him from all directions, geared up in their L.L.Bean and hauling their colorful fair trade market baskets, hooting when they came upon a mushroom, taking photos of it with their cell phones. And weren’t they equally surprised to encounter Mushroom dressed in his brown Carhartts and wool cap, looking like a morel mushroom himself with his pockmarked face and elongated head mounted on his neck and aching back, leaning like he was looking for the sun.
“A person was trespassing,” the homeowner complained to me when I took the call at the sheriff’s office that day. “He was stealing my mushrooms.”
I knew it was Mushroom the homeowner had seen, but I asked the caller to describe the person anyhow, acting like I didn’t. “Did you get his name?” I asked, “Did you talk with him? What makes you believe he was stealing mushrooms?” Like that.
Later that day I saw Mushroom gassing up at the Casey’s Gas N’ Go where I attempted to counsel him as I’d promised his Mama I would if he ever needed it. On her deathbed she’d fretted about the fate of her son, who’d always been a little peculiar with the way he latched onto ideas and wouldn’t let them go. “Don’t let fate come for him,” she made me promise, as if fate were an animated thing that could be seen and fought off.
I started easy. “Mushroom,” I said, “you might want to stay away from the woods on the homeowner’s lots.”
“Why should I?” he demanded, immediately mulish.
“Well, it’s their land,” I said.
“This land is your land, this land is my land,” he sang.
The next week I heard from a different complaining homeowner, who’d surprised Mushroom and nabbed the full sack of morels he’d left on a log. This guy came in person to file a report, and had taken a photo of Mushroom’s backside as he loped away. “Do you recognize this person?” the guy demanded, thrusting his cell phone under my nose. The smell of red wine wafted up to the blades of the ceiling fan and spread through the little office like a fog. I studied the photo a while, recognizing Mushroom right away, having known him his entire life, goddam Mushroom. But I can’t give him up. “It could be anyone,” I said shaking my head.
This time I went out to Mushroom’s place and found him in his garage tinkering with his riding mower. I said, “Mushroom, you’re gonna get yourself maced or something worse.” He didn’t respond except to make his mouth small and hard. His hands shook as he held bits and pieces of lawn mower up to the light. “How’s about we go out together,” I suggested next, “look for public land where you don’t have to worry about the homeowners?” I had in mind an area up behind the farms off Highway 48. But Mushroom wouldn’t even look at me.
He used to have buddies, Mushroom, but they’d married local girls and had families to tend to now. Every now and then he’d be invited to a barbecue and when someone moved or had something heavy to haul, Mushroom always helped out with his truck. But as they all got older, he spent more and more time alone in the woods. Some folks, when they don’t fit in no more find another way to go. They head out for new places, get new jobs, find themselves someone to love. Mushroom, he hunkered down and became even more of who he started out to be.
This trespassing business went on for a while and I could see the situation wasn’t going to improve on its own. I went to the tavern in town, where Mushroom was known to go for a pulled pork sandwich and the two bottles of beer he drank each night, as his father had done before him. Only now he was having three beers or even four, his complaints about the homeowners growing louder each time he raised the bottle to his chapped lips. I pulled up a stool next to him and let him talk.
“Thirty years, I’ve been hunting mushrooms up there,” he’d said, shaking his floppy head, “long before any La-dee-da so-called homeowners moved to these parts.”
“Hey I know,” said the girl bartender, who was young and enthusiastic and had been listening to Mushroom whine about his life for a while now, “Why don’t you start a YouTube channel? You know, video yourself foraging mushrooms to teach the homeowners how to do it? I bet they’d pay you.”
Mushroom looked at her with blurry eyes. He didn’t know YouTube from a pig’s ear.
“Listen Mushroom,” I said, “you’ve got to find a new gig. You can’t keep going out to the new additions for your mushrooms.” It wasn’t an official warning, being as we were in a tavern, but I told him he’d be in for a serious fine or even jail time if someone pushed it. But Mushroom was already too far into his beers.
So you can understand how delighted I was when he began hunting his morels out by the mid-wife’s place, the old stagecoach house off Highway 48, where travelers in old time days stopped on their way to Des Moines. The mid-wife was a newcomer herself, from Chicago, but not at all like the homeowners in the additions. She never once complained about the curious people who’d drive up the long, bumpy road to admire her old little house that she’d restored and added a front porch to and painted moss green and cherry red. She was a nature lover, a flower child you might say, with a pygmy goat named Jerome who kept her few sheep company and followed her like a dog. There were always cats of course and from time to time she bottle-fed a bucket calf or a poor little bummed lamb. She had a vegetable garden and a huge patch of asparagus, which she cultivated carefully and which was envied far and wide. So no, I don’t think she minded Mushroom Dave hunting morels nearby at all. For a while everyone was happy.
But then, two things happened the spring I’m telling you about, that together changed everything. First, for reasons known only to herself, the mid-wife began working her gardens in her birthday suit. If I had to hazard a guess I would say it was because of the soil itself, soil you can taste in the folds of a mushroom, soil you want to curl your toes into. An Evangelical family that’d gone up there for a walk-about was quite upset with what they’d witnessed one day, the naked mid-wife toiling in her asparagus field, bending and squatting and… well, you get the picture. The father came to the sheriff’s office red faced and hat in hand to report her for public nudity and I had to remind him they’d only seen her because they’d been trespassing on her land. I heard the same story at the tavern, told gossipy, in hisses and superior tones.
The second thing that happened is Mushroom’s three or four beers turned into four or five and one night he managed to drunk drive his truck right through the front window of Casey’s Gas N’ Go. As a result he lost his driver’s license and had commenced to riding his mower everywhere, including mushroom hunting.
It was the fool lawn mower he drove that last morning to forage behind the mid-wife’s house. He’d hitched a wagon to it, I saw, when I pulled up and parked behind it up there on the ridge overlooking her gardens. Inside were two flats filled with morels — quite a haul for so early in the day. Good on you Mushroom, I said to myself.
The morning sun hadn’t come up fully from behind the river bluffs in the distance, but threw a soft, surreal light and the ground was littered with violets like dropped pieces of silk on a dressmaker’s floor. After a while I saw Mushroom himself, moving at the edge of the woods, nose to the ground, running a stick from side to side, turning over leaves, cutting and nabbing mushrooms. I knew better than to call out to him, which would break his concentration. Instead I walked further up the ridge to an outlook where I could take in the old stagecoach house and the mid-wife herself, there in the altogether as people said she’d be, tending her asparagus, digging in the loamy soil. A beautiful sight, if you must know.
All at once the sun broke free of the bluffs and blinded me, making me dizzy enough to stagger, and rain a small avalanche of pebbles down the ridge. I stood a moment, adjusting my eyes to the light. Mushroom looked up and saw me then. He caught my eye and followed my gaze through the trees to the mid-wife who drew an apron over her head. We were frozen there an instant, the three of us, contemplating each other, thinking god knows what — my own thoughts were suspended somewhere above me, not really in my mind at all, but somewhere I couldn’t reach.
Mushroom began to run. Next thing, I heard his mower engine turn over and begin its irritating roar. And then there he was, peeling away in the mower, overturning the attached wagon in the process, his bounty of morels cartwheeling down the hill. Frantically he threw himself from the mower and chased after them. What happened next is still a blur, as I’ve said a million times now, but I guess he didn’t secure the gears very well because the mower engaged the blade by itself and started rolling. And where else would it roll but downhill where Mushroom Dave had tripped and fallen? I don’t know his thoughts when he realized his own lawnmower was coming straight for him, or if he heard me yell, “Get up Mushroom, get up!” All I could think about was his mama, “Look out for my boy. Don’t let fate come for him.”
Some say Mushroom died doing what he loved and strangely, many of the homeowners came out for his funeral. The mid-wife was there too, sitting alone with a circle of empty chairs around her, one in herself, looking straight ahead as people gawped. Me, I’m headed to Florida now, since I sold my place and land to a developer and put the money into a condo down there, “God’s waiting room,” they call it, with nothing but sand to dig my toes into.
Elle Napolitano’s stories are forthcoming or have appeared in Into the Void, Glimmer Train, The Woven Tale Press, and The Greensboro Review. She lives in Oakland, CA with her husband and dogs and is a student in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.