by Martha E. Shivvers
AFTER the snows have melted, the frost has seeped out of the ground, and warm rains bring forth green leaves and blossoms on the trees and grass that is emerald green, the timbers in South Central Iowa cradle secret hiding places of the conical mushroom. And I, for one, have made it a ritual to seek out those elusive morels beginning on the first Saturday in May; earlier if the weather allows it.
I had it all planned in my mind this morning how I would throw Marge off guard and get out into the new timber to hunt for those special fungi that were so delicious. Envisioning my sweetie dipping the cut cones into batter and frying them in butter until they were crisp made the juices begin to well up in my mouth. My heart beat faster.
But when a big platter of ham, eggs turned over easy, orange marmalade, muffins, and steaming coffee were placed before me for breakfast, I kind of sensed that my better-half was planning something. It’s a trick of hers. I also thought about Herbie, the next-door neighbor, who seems to pop out of his back door at the most inopportune times, and I wondered if I could slip away from both of them today.
I slid the chair back from the table, lit a cigarette, and blew smoke toward the east windows, dingy from the winter’s rains and snows, and I saw some dirt from the rains.
“Harold, honey,” Marge began speaking in that syrupy voice that I know so well when she has something for me to do. “This is a perfect day for you to clean out the garage and for us to wash the windows.”
I smiled, half-heartedly, pulled her hand to my face and kissed it as the three older children ran outside to splash in the puddles in the yard. Seeing that that gesture didn’t cut any ice, I pulled her down on my lap, slipped an arm around her waist, looked at her as coyly as I knew how, then replied, “Sweetie, you know what the first warm Sunday in May means to me.” She also knew my weakness to her wiles, even after ten years of marriage and drew down her lips to a provocative pout while she lowered those long lashes over her deep brown eyes. I tell you right now, she almost wins me over with this tactic, but this morning I was determined to be too hardened for any ploy.
“I’ll make a bargain with you.” Her arms went around my neck. “You help with the windows, then you can go hunt your mushrooms.”
“I’ve a better idea. I’ll go out and get my mushrooms, then we’ll do the windows.” I paused, but not long enough for her to reply. “I’ll even take you out to dinner tonight. A deal?”
Marge’s pout turned into a half smile. She kissed me hurriedly, then retorted, ‘Just be sure you don’t get lost and do get home before dark.”
I laughed. “Me get lost? Don’t be silly.”
“Okay, then. Shorty, good luck to you.”
I grimaced. She knows how I hate that nickname. I have always wanted to be tall like my six-feet-two father, and I stand only five feet nine and hate it. She knows it, too!
Men aren’t supposed to be superstitious, but whenever I’ve wanted any good fortune to fall on me, whether it is out fishing or hunting, I reach for that grubby plaid shirt, patched levis, and worn hiking boots that support one red and one blue shoestring, a hangover from my high school days. And there is a shopping bag that no one, and I really mean no one, is supposed to touch. That is in and out of mushrooming season. Just for luck, this day, I took a clean garbage bag. Fat chance I’d need it, but who knows?
Herbie’s back door opened. He drew himself up to his six-foot height, blew out a ring of smoke from his cigarette, and called “What’s up, ol’ buddy?”
I tried to ignore him as I crawled into the well-worn jeep and started the motor. “Oh, I’m just goin’ out for a while.”
“I can see that, dummy. But where?”
“How about some company?”
“I just don’t want any.”
“What you gonna do that’s so special?”
“That’s my business.”
“Okay. You’ve made your point. Hope Marge understands if you get lost and come home late, and don’t blame me if you get into trouble, and I’m not there to help.”
He has a way that infuriates me, even when I know he is right, but he really is a good neighbor, and I like him. That is, most of the time. “Ha, you help me? That’s a laugh. Gotta be goin’, Herbie. See you later.”
With that I backed the jeep out of the garage and hoped that Josh, our eight-year-old, wouldn’t see me. He has his mother’s ability to wheedle me out of my most iron-clad defenses. Luckily, he and his brothers were on the far side of the house splashing water and mud all over themselves.
At last I was on my way, and I felt like a kid that was getting out of family chores and going on a pleasure drive. Well, really, I was. I thought about how decent it was of Jim Hanson to allow me to hunt in his big timber; I know he refuses that privilege to others that have asked. His one request was that I didn’t tell anyone else where I found, or rather searched for, the prized morels.
I laughed at Jim. “Don’t you know that’s one of the best-kept secrets of mushroom hunters? We never tell anyone where we get them.”
The lane from the highway to the timber was more like the trails of those early settlers, and each jolt of the Jeep was a reminder of the thrill that lay ahead. I parked the Jeep in some shrubs so it couldn’t be seen from the highway, then took a good look around to establish in my mind a large red elm tree as a landmark that would guide me back to the right exit. Now if Herbie were along, he wouldn’t have to take precautions like that. He has a seventh sense about directions and never gets lost. He just knows by instinct, I guess, where he is going, where he came from, and how to return. He scoffs at me for using the old Boy Scout compass, but if a fellow needs it, he needs it, and a couple of damns on him.
With the inch of rain that had fallen the night before and the warmth that crept through the partly leafed trees, everything was just right for what was needed to cause those spongy morels to pop through old leaves around dead elms, black oaks, and among the willows growing along the cool, rippling creek waters.
At first sighting I thought I’d found manna from heaven. I fell to my knees and pulled the conical sponges as fast as I could. You would have thought they were going to fly away, the frantic way I was tearing them out of the ground. When the shopping bag was filled, the delicate fungi were poured into the larger bag. The patch around the rotting oak log was soon exhausted so I plunged onward, eyes ever downward.
Just as I was ready to plant my foot down at the edge of the stream, near the mass of willows I sighted another patch of the yellowish and grey sponges and reached down to grab a handful but drew back so quickly I fell backwards and icy chills raced down my spine. Now, I can’t say I’m exactly afraid of snakes, but I’m not thrusting my hands against one, let alone the three or four that were evidently seeking their food of earthworms and frogs. Carefully stepping over this patch, I started to cross the creek, placing one foot right in front of the other on the fallen trunk that spanned the five-foot wide chasm and being careful not to bruise my precious cargo. That opposite bank was steep, and it took some skill to climb up it, pulling at the grapevines with one hand and clutching my treasures with the other.
Through the throes of time and harsh winds, branches lay in geometric designs in various stages of decay. I kicked the debris with the toe of my right boot, scattering the partly rotten leaves, and there was another gold mine of what would be luscious tasting food. As fast as I picked and pulled, it seemed more popped up. Another bag full was gathered. Then just a stone’s throw ahead was another patch. Talk about being greedy! I was going to take home as many as I could find, not even thinking of the length of time it would take to sort and clean them, or of the pans and bags it would take to store and freeze them. Maybe I’d even give Herbie and Gladys some of them. He really was a good sport; most of the time, anyway.
It was a little stab of hunger that reminded me of my promise to Marge to get back home in time to help her with those windows. And, by golly, she had been such a good gal about me having my day that I’d better get back there and help her, then take her out to a real nice place for dinner. I hoped she had a baby sitter lined up.
I looked through the tree limbs into what sky I could see, took out my compass to get my course of return in mind, then tried to remember which way I had been going when I crossed the creek on that log. As I’ve said before, when it comes to directions by sense, I’m lost. Maybe I should have brought Herbie along; we have gone together at times, and now, I’m sure that’s what he wanted when he came out onto the driveway this morning. Oh, well, that’s past now. I needed, though, to find my way out of this wooded area and get back home to keep my part of an important family compromise.
I found the creek, but there wasn’t a log across it; just a beaver damn that backed up the water to a greater depth. I knew the Jeep was on the other side. I followed along the edge of the stream for some time, finally coming to a place that had a log bridging it where I could cross. It wasn’t the same one that I’d crossed before, but I wasn’t looking for any more morels. In fact, the half-full garbage bag was beginning to be more of a burden to carry than a blessing. The tree that I had first sighted for a landmark was nowhere in my line of vision, but there was a fence ahead of me. I’d follow that, and surely, it would take me to the fringes of the woods.
It seemed that I had walked a couple of miles, probably because I was getting tired and feeling kind of low. All at once I saw bright sunlight ahead and some farm buildings. Well, it wasn’t the Jeep, but perhaps some kind soul would guide me to the place where that vehicle was hiding.
A voice startled me: “Hi, Harold. Looks like you had some luck today.”
I looked up at that big lummox neighbor of mine, and all I could think to say was: “Well, you ol’ son-of-a-gun, how did you get here?”
I just knew that he knew I had been lost, but he didn’t laugh or say anything smart like.
“Well, this little area near this fence has been my place to hunt for mushrooms for a long time, and the most I’ve ever found is this bunch today.” He held up a bread wrapper that was half filled. “I saw your Jeep in the bushes back yonder and wondered where you were.” He barely looked at my garbage bag, but he held out a hand. “Let me help you. You look tired.”
I just gulped. Here I’d been treating this guy like the north end of a horse going south, and he offers to help me. I felt lower than those snakes I’d found earlier.
“Herbie, we can’t use all these mushrooms. You take half of them. Think Gladys would mind? Lots of cleaning, ya know.” Somehow I wanted to make it up to this fellow, and even though I was gabbing along like a foolish schoolboy, this was the only way I could think of making amends.
Herbie grinned, and we walked a few feet farther. I’m sure I looked like the imbecile I felt. We sat on a couple of fallen logs and pulled out cigarettes.
“You knew I was goin’ mushroomin’ this mornin’, didn’t you?” I asked Herbie, blowing a spiral of smoke into the sky that was becoming overcast.
“Thought you were.” He closed his eyes, and the wreath of smoke from his cigarette circled into the wind that was beginning to blow from the east.
‘And you wanted to come with me.” It was more of a statement than a question.
“Well, Gladys was in one of her ‘Herbie-do-this, Herbie-do-that’ moods and I just needed to get away.” He threw his half-smoked cigarette onto the damp ground and crushed it with the toe of his boot. “How did you get in Jim Hanson’s timber, anyway? When I asked him, he just shook his head ‘no,’ so I thought he meant everyone.”
I smiled a bit. “Guess he thought he owed me one. I helped him this spring with a sticky problem.” I looked off into the building clouds, thinking that half a lie might not be too bad, especially now. Puffs of wind began to toss debris around, and the sky became ominous looking.
“Harold, sometimes I think you try to avoid me.” He didn’t look at me, and I was glad he didn’t. “Guess you think I’m some kind of jerk or something.”
“Sometimes you are a pain.”
Herbie turned swiftly and stared me right in the eyes; “Guess you’ve never needed a friend.”
He got up quickly, not even looking at me, and almost commanded, “Come on, I’ll take you to your Jeep. You’ll never make it with that sack of your precious morels.”
Splatters of rain began to fall, or I would have refused him. Just who did he think he was, being the only person who needed a friend? Everyone does at one time or another.
We rode over the ruts and bumps for about two miles before I spotted the Jeep in the bushes. “I’d better wait, you might need help getting’ outta here.” Herbie was being solicitous, and I didn’t like that.
“Don’t bother.” Then I spotted a sack in his truck. “Here, take all the mushrooms you can jam into that sack,” My voice wasn’t kind; I was really being childish, I knew.
He didn’t say anything; just waited until I got one foot on the ground then pushed down the accelerator, spinning the tires in the mud, and was gone. The mud hole I fell into softened the fall, but my clothes were covered with mud, and mushrooms lay all over the ground and in the muddy water.
I swore to the sun, moon, heavens, and anything else I could think of. I just sat there and when some reasoning came to me, I thought of the time I had reprimanded Josh for being so childish when his six-year-old brother, Jeff, pushed him off Jeff’s bike and he, Josh, fell into a hole something like this one. If I remember correctly, I called him a big baby and told him to get up and act like a man. I wasn’t ready to laugh yet but knew I was behaving more childishly than had my own son.
The shower was one of those quick spring spurts that sends water down in a rush for a few minutes, and then the clouds float off and the blue sky shows which was what was happening as I pulled into our driveway. I didn’t see Herbie’s truck anyplace and wondered where he had gone.
Marge saw me. “Good grief! What happened to you?”
“Just a childish fall,” I sulked, taking out the small amount of mushrooms I’d been able to salvage and starting toward the garage with mud squishing out of my boots.
“Hey, don’t you dare track in there with those dirty clothes. Not after the boys and I have worked all day cleaning and scrubbing it.” Marge was actually yelling at me. Then she pulled the garden hose from the reel against the house and pointed it right at me.
“Hey, Marge, do you want me to get pneumonia?”
The water hit me with full spray, on my hair, face, muddy clothes, and boots and then onto the filthy Jeep. The boys laughed heartily as they jumped up and down.
“Now, you hike yourself to the basement, shower, and change those clothes!” Was this my Marge, acting like a drill sergeant?
She didn’t even ask me if I got hurt, or if I had found many mushrooms. She just turned on her heel and went back into the kitchen. I wondered if the emptiness I was feeling was the way Herbie felt when I’d been so rude to him. I might look him up later and try to make amends.
After the mushrooms were dumped into the basement sink, covered with cold water and salt so that they could be cleaned later, I called out to Marge, “Come on, let’s get those windows done.”
Now, why women think men should help clean windows is beyond me; but I had promised, and I wasn’t going to welsh on my part of the bargain. I was glad we had only a one-storied house. Whenever I thought a window looked sparkling clean, Marge pointed out a place that still needed some more rubbing, so I rubbed. In fact the more I rubbed, the more agitated I became. I didn’t know whether it was because of Marge, or the window washing, or because I had treated Herbie like a so-and-so, or if it was because the day that had started off so perfect was now turning into a dud.
At last the window cleaning job was completed; the ladder was put away; the used rags and paper towels disposed of, and I stumbled into the kitchen where Marge was sitting at the round table with two cups of freshly brewed coffee.
“Now, let’s get the air cleared. What’s wrong with you anyway? You left here this morning walking on air and came home like a grumpy bear. I know you found your mushrooms; I saw you take them to the basement. And it was you that asked to get started on the windows. I didn’t even mention it when you came home. So, what is wrong?”
How could I tell her about my rudeness this morning? How could I tell her about being so greedy about those spongy morels? About getting lost and about Herbie finding me and leading me out into civilization? About Herbie’s confession that what I had thought was him being a nosy neighbor was a man who needed a friend? And about him being the man and me the sulking child? How could I tell her about these things?
As I sipped my coffee and lit a cigarette, smoked it a little, and then rubbed it out, I pondered about all of those infantile happenings.
“Sometimes I act like a donkey, don’t I?”
“You said it; I didn’t. I would have put it stronger.”
“How does a fella make it up to someone they’ve treated like a you-know-what?”
Marge took a sip of coffee, looking at me over the rim of the cup. “Like you treat Herbie some of the time? I saw him come home not long ago. He looked pretty down.”
“Like I treat Herbie a lot of the time,” I grimaced.
“Just tell him you are sorry.” She leaned toward me, looked straight at me, and with her brown eyes penetrating menacingly, she continued, “Just be sure you mean it.”
I grabbed both her hands in mine, kissed them, and still holding them, said, “You know I said I would take you out to dinner tonight?”
“I know. A baby sitter is coming at six.”
“What would you say about asking Herbie and Gladys to go along?”
“What would you say if I told you that I have already asked them to go… as our guests?”
“They will be ready at six.”
Hand set in Deepdene; display face is Alternate Gothic. Edited and published by Jake Warner who printed 380 copies on a Vandercook SP-15 proof press.
The Boxwood Press
Greenbelt, MD 20770