Mushroom — Richard Smyth

It’s coming. I can smell it coming.

The first thing that everyone asks me: what is a politico-cartographer? Is it just one of those made-up portmanteau occupations: cryptozoologist, cybereconomist, macrocrossing-lady?

And I say, sipping my spritzer with what I believe to be a wry grin: You know how C. Ledger Graham gets elected year-after-year in spite of the fact that every person of color in Staten Island is an Elmore Masterson person of color?

Well – you’d be surprised by just how few people of color there actually are in Staten Island. That’s politico-cartography.

And because I’ve mentioned C. Ledger Graham they gather into cliques and tell each other that urban violence is mushrooming and that twenty-forty-two will be Masterson’s year. Either that or they offer to fight me. At an occasion in Washington a few months ago the Governor of Nebraska slipped his suspenders off his fat old shoulders and offered to fight me. (Yeah, Nebraska really does have a governor. I know. I’d never have believed it. What does he do all day?)

Politico-cartography made the big news when Steinman rammed the third Urban Encroachment bill through Congress. In fact for a while it was eco-politico-cartography and there were geo-bio-socio-crypto-psycho lobby-groups and pressure-parties on my poor bent back for a fortnight.

Till myself and a couple of associates lined ’em up against the wall of a Chicago garage and, ha, read ’em da constitution.

Then, once I was alone and my $three-thousand cartographer’s desk was inclined to just the right number of degrees, I switched on my drawing lamp: beneath my eager compasses, like a frog pegged out for dissection, lay a map – my own map, actually – of the United States.

Politico-cartography was about to become as real as hell.

If they bother to ask a second thing, they ask: what does that bastard Francis Steinman have against cities?

Hum, let’s think together: BRIC screwing him hard on climate change, Europe wanting, needing, begging credibility for their own improbable urban limitation programs, Eddie Cruimcrack of the National Union of Shit-Kickers asking him WHAT ABOUT THE FUTURE OF THIS COUNTRY’S AGRICULTURE (and on live tv too, the man has no manners), the Middleast going up like a lady on a land-mine and, oops, no petroleum so no cars so no more roads.

Luis Franck the railroad jefe oiling seventeen senators. But I did not say that.

I tell them all this with what I believe to be my wry smile. It conveys, I like to think, the informed cynicism of the twentyfirst-century insider.

This is why I sat down with my compasses (shiny-new from Broom & Co. of Manhattan) and drew big, clean circles here, around New York, and here, around Chi, and here, and here, and here

It was something very different to looking at a city-map and saying, ah, no, actually I think you’ll find that that housing project is ooh just outside Staten Island, bad luck! That’s normally what I do most of the day; it used to be what I did most of the day. (The rest of the time I was governor of Nebraska, ha.)

My firm circles in pale pencil stopped the cities. Outside of them the cities could not go. I stemmed them, I hampered them, I said YOU MAY NOT PASS. I said that to billions of tons of chemico-industrial (I just can’t resist ’em) engineering and to many many $ of urban wealth.

I got my photograph on the front of Time and they called me James Oleander, raffish genius behind controversial urban program. High priest of emerging science of politico-cartography.

Oh yeah. I’m big news, baby. Hoo, the biggest.

As a corollary of our urban limitation we reinvented the railroad-town, which as you can imagine gave us big kicks. They put out a million new railroads and then scratched up these new towns in the dirt so that now everyone out there stinks of grease and runs to time.

And what does that remind you of? Tick, tick.

But think about it: the railroad helped invent America and now America reinvented the railroad. It’s got a rootsy back-to-basics dustbowl Americana savour to it that smacks of great copy.

But anyhow – that’s it, that’s me, I’m James Oleander, don’t be shy now and pretend you never heard my name.

Now I’ll tell you a little story, a yarn about Jimmy Oleander.

My dad used to take me (I’m an only child, and ah yes, that explains my conceit affectation and evident emotional fragility, hoo, doesn’t it just) to the beach when I was seven-or-eight. In ’twenty-three he took me down to Miami which as you know is at the front of the Atlantic ocean.

The thing about the old AO is that it’s a mighty size. You know what you get in the Atlantic ocean? That’s right, whales. It was the whales that scared the shit out of little Jimmy Oleander.

“You don’t see ’em. They don’t come to the beach,” my dad said.

Sharks: sharks were pussies, pansies, pieces-of-shit and I could eat them up for brunch. I’d seen that old color flick, Jaws, and Jaws could kiss – my – ass.

If a whale comes up for you out of the deep it isn’t like a shark or a barracuda it’s like the whole fucking ocean floor has opened a mouth and is coming up for you out of the deep: and that’s the thought that made little JO shit his little swimming pants in the old AO in ’twenty-one.

Ten weeks ago I was in my cute-as-a-button Manhattan loft doing some work on, I forget, showing how, wow, there are no Democrats in the Boston Bay area or whatever, and on the tv Eddie Cruimcrack is giving it: THIS GREAT OLD NATION WAS BUILT UP FROM DUST BY THE SWEAT OF AMERICAN FARMERS or something – the phone rings.

It’s my mother.

“Hi, James?”

“This is me. What?”

“I wish you were your dad,” which is a strange thing to say.

“Why. Why just now?”

“There are like a million mushrooms come up on the lawn.”

“And I’m what? A fungus vigilante?” I’m doing that ol’ wry grin into the camera.

“Your dad would’ve known what to do,” says my mother. “He was, like, into that whole garden thing.”

“Well, I dunno – kick ‘em all over, wouldn’t he just have said that? He would have gone out and kicked all the mushrooms over. Right?”

“I don’t know.”

“So long mom.” Beep. I can no longer see her old made-up monkey face on the monitor. But Eddie Cruimcrack’s still giving it with vigour: WE HAVE GIVEN SWEAT, WE HAVE SPILLED BLOOD FOR TWELVE SCORE YEARS. Give it a rest, Ed. Leave it out, Edward. Eddie, this is getting tiresome.

At this stage I believe at some of the highest levels, in those sinister corridors, it was beginning to become known.

We first knew about it, them, around fifty years ago. You tell that to someone now and they go like: hey, woah, fifty years man that’s a long time – who knew? Who the hell knew? – as if you’d told them they were up on trial for it in the morning. As if you’d said that they were going to have their balls crushed between two bricks for not knowing. On account of their father’s not knowing. Woah, man, WHO KNEW?

And I say: buddy, relax. Take a sip of my spritzer. It’s all right. It’s okay. Nobody knew. There’s nothing we can do. Relax.

If you read about it in a newspaper fifty years ago you said, ooh, botany news, and leafed quickly to the celebrity cook-page. But now it’s the biggest. Know what the sharp-minded kids at Newsweek and the Times are calling it? Naturally you don’t, but they’re calling it: The Clone. They like that, you can see they think it’s simply too cool: The Clone, like it’s from outer space. As if it’s The Blob.

Of course it’s actually Armillaria bulbosa – yeah, I looked that up in a book.

You needn’t think it’s slowing down.

Steinman went on the tv (he likes going on tv, even though it means there’s a crisis afoot, he likes it, he loves it). You know what? Steinman is going n-u-t-s. He’s a nutball. This is sixteen weeks after my mother called to tell me about the mushrooms in her lawn. Francis Steinman went on the tv to have this ferocious debate with some techno-chemical pressure-partypeople.

I tell you they don’t let up. I tell you they’re twenty-four-hour pressure-partypeople, ha.

“Why shouldn’t there be cities? Cities made us GREAT!” Like Tony Tiger from the cereal boxes. Actually this guy reminded me a little of old Eddie Cruimcrack, the caesar of agriculture in America.

“You’d take the blue out of the sky,” said Steinman. He is STERN. He is a PROPHET. In fact a lot about Steinman is very Old-testament even though in actuality – a whisper from the inside – he isn’t actually Jewish. Sshhhh.

So he’s from the Lower East Side. Give me a map. I’ll show you. There are no Jews in the Lower East Side. It’s a regular Jew-desert.

“The dirt out of our fingernails,” said the city-guy. He had a nice-cut suit that I’d say was Jessica Kennedy.

“You know – ” Steinman paused. His face took on a nutty look. Analysts might say that at this point – just here – Steinman went nutty. “You know, this thing has been there since the beginning,” he said.

“What? The beginning of what?” says the man in Kennedy. He has an ear-piece in and you can almost see it vibrating. The pressure-partypeople are yelling in his ear you can bet. What – the fuck – is the President talking about?

“The Beginning,” Steinman said.

“The Beginning?” The Kennedy-wearer is lost at sea, he’s clutching his podium, this storm has come out of nowhere.

“Yeah. And God created – ”

“We were talking about – ”

“Thank-you!” said Steinman. Some patriot pulled the plug on the broadcast.

Like a stand-up, though: “Thank-you!” “Thank-you America and good-night!”

So Steinman’s come over with this apocaplexy and you can’t blame him, the rats-in-suits in Washington are going through an agony in eight fits and, sweet lord, the word is that – hold me down, Doc – Eddie Cruimcrack wants to be President.

I can see it: “Eddie, darling, one day you will be President.” That’s Eddie’s mother I can see around sixty years ago. “In this grand old country anyone can be President.”

Although in fact doesn’t that sound sort of insulting? I think if Mrs Cruimcrack had insulted Eddie like that he wouldn’t have grown up into the well-rounded image of sanity he is today. I’ll bet Eddie was Most Likely to Succeed out of all the boys in Asshole, Indiana. Hoo yeah.

All right: cards on the table. Enough fancy talk, lay ‘em down. What’s this building to?

Okey boys. I’ll let my full house do the talking.

Because it is a full house, The Clone; hell it’s a flush, an ace flush, it tops the lot. This big baby (for numberfreaks the big baby weighs in at, like, a trillion pounds minimum) just comes casually along and shits on everything. Hmm mmm mmm, 1776, shits on that. Hmmm, Civil War, emanciwhatnots, shits right on it. Hum-te-tum, rise to economic globalism, The Clone, our big new baby, shits on everything.

I hope I am making myself clear.

The first one was in Michigan. Where’s Michigan, ask New Yorkers, and I say: oh, it’s up there somewhere. Near Canada? Somewhere like that. They found the first one there, a teeny thing, not even a baby, an ovum, a spermlet of a fungus. Thirty acres, pshaw.

Of course our shroom is a mutant. There’s always a mutant, isn’t there? Mutants, I tell ya, if they didn’t exist someone’d have to invent ‘em. Ha. Our little baby just grows and grows.

Actually, technically, fungally, I mean “toadstool” when I say “mushroom” and in this respect I’m disappointed. When someone says “toadstool” (and I’m not suggesting this happens a lot in everyday life) what do you think? – you think elves, gnomes, fairy-tales.

I shat myself a lot at fairy-tales. Especially that Jonah one. Whoo-ee.

But I looked it up, and the fairy-tale mushroom (you know the old red-and-white beaut I’m talking about) is Amanita muscaria and not Armillaria bulbosa. It’s poisonous, the book says. Associated, this helluva-good-read tells me, with divine madness.

Now this explains Steinman. Divine madness, and what’s more, the fairy-tale of Jonah. Swallowed up by the whale. Ah? You want to think about this.

I was talking with Libby (short for Liberty) Steele, yes you know the talkshow girl who, in my judgment (never wrong), is going crazy herself. I was talking to her in a little coffee-place in Manhattan that had cracks going from floor to ceiling. Honestly, by not building itself on a faultline NYC left itself awfully vulnerable. But hey, who knew?

“I’d like to get it on the show,” Libby Steele said to me. Already she was looking a little bit Steinman.


“The fungus. I’d like to have it on the show. On Libby.”

“Hm.” James Oleander, you will realise, does not altogether grasp the celebrity mentality. For Chrissakes he’s been to college.

“The fungus – it’s big, right? Okay. You seen my show? We get all sorts.”

“Yes but you do not as a rule get fungi.”

But then – HAlleluja! – it hits me, I see, yes, this is it, this is why. I’ve seen her show: “Momma, You Too FAT To Hoochie!”.

“Daughter, You Is The FATTEST Thing I Ever Seen!”. It is, hackneyed-but-true, a freakshow.

What’s Armillaria? A freak. What’s America? Armillaria’s a-coming to show it ain’t too fat to hoochie just a little. It wants to be on tv.

“Libby you’re a genius,” I say and set down my coffee-cup.

“The viewing figures don’t lie,” Libby says, smiling. She’s talking to the high priest of politico-cartography and if you think I don’t know all about viewing figures you’re crazy yourself.

The growth of Armillaria has mushroomed. Ha, irony, sure. They (by which I mean the hard-working drones of the Pentagon’s crack fungoid squad or whatever) tell us it’s twenty-thousand years old. My that’s old. It started out in the east, like cities and Legionnaire’s disease.

(I can hear someone in Philly, maybe the Eddie Cruimcrack of Philadelphia if they have one, say: “Hey, that’s low, friend. Why do you have to bring that up? Everyone’s always bringing up Legionnaire’s disease.” He’ll ride to Philly-senator on that ticket. But hell, it doesn’t matter. Who knew?)

It started east, small, small and thrumming like a baby heart under the Indians’ feet. And it grew. It may actually be that the Michigan toadstool-mat (that’s what they call it) was some kind of bastard offspring of The Clone, it may be that the Michigan mat is the mutant.

This is getting childish. Who’s the mutant here?

“FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS OUR FOREFATHERS AND OUR FOREFATHERS’ FOREFATHERS’ FOREFATHERS’“ says Eddie on tv. Tell it to The Clone, chum. He’s compelling though. I can’t turn him off. He’s like the Zapruder footage.

It spread out hyphae and rhizomorphs (and the sci-fi boys at Newsweek all have hard-ons) under the fresh virgin soil of America. It grew and grew and grew, cloning itself over and over. Stuck under the earth with only itself for thousands of years, that’s Hell, that’s literally my idea of Hell.

Now it’s east coast-west coast, it’s a conglomerate, it’s got a monopoly, look out world Armillaria’s going global. I’d like to license this baby.

You don’t notice this big mutant growing up underneath you, except when all of a sudden odd toadstools sprout up in your lawn. So not only is Steinman a prophet but so is my mother. See: these toadstools look like separate things, but actually, fungally, they’re sort of fingers on this single giant fungus.

It’s like a big collective mind. It’s like a mushroom transcendental thing.

So: all right. That’s it. It’s in the foundations, it’s in the bedrock, it’s making cracks in the Chrysler building and there’s fuck-all a man can do.

“Excuse me, look here, you’ll find there’s actually no mushrooms resident in the Upper Manhattan area.” It isn’t going to work because there’s only one of it. How do you deal with that many mushrooms?

Ha! I just thought of the railroads. Pretzeled all the way to California by fungal brutality and I’ll bet for Luis Franck divine madness isn’t half of it.

So you hold back the cities and let the environmentalists do their business. You put the blue back in the sky. What good does it do? No good, because here’s the catch (it’s been the catch since 1776, it’s our destiny and doom and hoo, Calvin had it right. The Puritans, God love ‘em, they were bang on the money). This is the price for being America. Armillaria.

You’ll excuse me, I’m getting a little evangelical. A little born-again. Leaving Manhattan can do that to a person.

What good does it do? A mushroom saunters along and shits on everything. There’s never been anything like this.

And you think, ha, America’s had it coming, the Yanks have been asking for it (we’ve been asking for this, are you sure, we’ve been asking all along for a giant subterranean mushroom?). You think we’re finished. Ah – remember Armillaria and the lessons she brings.

I say she. I don’t mean to anger anybody. I guess it’s a herm. I don’t even want to anger the anti-hermaphrodite pressure-party.

We’re rhizomorphs, we’re hyphae, we’re spores. We spread out and out.

All right, we lose the motherlode, but what-the-fuck. What was America, America was the last colonial brick in the colonial castle and now there’s damn-all of the original castle left but there’s us.

Look out, here come the emigrants.

The world needs politico-cartographers, as I was remarking over a spritzer to a cryptozoologist friend of mine recently.

And here we are in twenty-forty three and hoo boy, it wasn’t Elmore Masterson’s year. I do not believe the fungus cast its vote for the Democratic party. It sits there, being lapped by the PO in its east and the AO in its west, covered in dirt and rubble, wearing the States like a hat, being looked at in astonishment by the rest of the world.

It’s on the tv. Hoo, it’s on all the tvs.

Richard Smyth – has had short fiction appear in The Stinging Fly, The Stockholm Review, The Fiction Desk, Litro, Firewords, Riptide Journal and two anthologies from Arachne Press. His first novel, Wild Ink, was published by Dead Ink Books in 2014. He ekes out a living in Bradford, West Yorkshire, as a journalist, critic, crossword-compiler, cartoonist and general all-round cultural janitor.