He had once been a musician, but when she died, she took the songs with her. After that, he did little of anything. Now he sells mushrooms on a low bench covered in newspaper; sits there all day on the side of his property in his coat and his hat, and looks off to the side, and into the distance, as if looking for something to focus on, something to make him smile again.
His garden is a collapsing assortment of farm tools and wooden implements, sheds and outbuildings daring the wind, things he’s lost and things he’s found, and things he’s never seen. There are long stretches of expansive concrete, stubbled with tufts of wiry and belligerent grass that would slice your hand like a paper cut; they grow wild and in lines, dividing the industrial slabs up into a monochrome Mondrian that only angels and airline pilots can see. And boys that climb trees.
He walks around, the Mushroom Man, in black and white and shades of grey, the only occasional colour blooming from the miniature sun of a hand-rolled cigarette, and he walks around, kicking at loose stones and dusty chunks of broken-off concrete, and he blows faintly blue smoke out at the sky as if to say, Come see me. Come see me, today.
And the story here is sad to tell, as if anyone would believe a word of it, and I only repeat it here for want of things to do.
See the Mushroom Man, who once had a name made of sounds whispered in his ear in the dark, and shouted from the back door come suppertime, and a name that he wrote himself on schoolbooks and official documents, and once upon a wall with other words we shall not name. See him, with his voice so deep it seems to come from somewhere behind him.
The Mushroom Man had a wife, and from that day he wrote nothing but love songs, until the day he wrote nothing but sad songs about the loss of love, because he could see that day would come. And it came, rolling slow like a burdened train in no great rush to arrive. The train that carries all the sadness in the world rolls incrementally slow.
So she was gone, carried off by the train that now weighed heavier and rolled more slowly, and would one day wend its way back around to his door and he would tip back his hat, button his jacket and step aboard.
Each day after she died, he would wander his garden and pick what flowers there were, growing in strange places, their splashes of colour making everything else seem even more markedly drab, and he would take them to her grave. He would hurry to be there, and come back slow.
And each day he would return, his pockets filled with mushrooms. It was some time before he ate one, as if it wasn’t the most likely thing to do. He prepared them in a risotto and went to his bed warm and full. And he dreamed of his wife, in dreams we cannot tell. Every day he took her flowers; every day he came home with mushrooms. He cooked them this way and that, in every way he could think of. And he spent his nights dreaming of her, in ways that broke his heart, chipping at it like the concrete in his garden, blowing the dust away so that he could not find it.
The rich soil of her grave did not take turf, and even weeds could find no purchase upon it. It stayed dark and moist, like crumbs of the best chocolate cake in the world. And if you watched it long enough, as the Mushroom Man did every day, you could see tiny tumbles of soil give way as the blooms and stalks of the mushrooms pushed up into the light, pressed out of the near-black dirt and grown to fullness.
Eventually he tired of mushrooms, and of finding new ways to cook and prepare them. He piled them into wooden jars and stacked them in the shed with the roof that did not leak, and he did not dream of his wife any more, and that did not seem so bad. He only had enough heart for himself, and could not afford to lose much more. He could hear that train off in the distance, its steam bellow like the dead, and he knew it would be around soon enough and that then he would be done.
Her grave he still visited, and the mushrooms he still collected – for they grew and they grew and nothing could halt that – and one day he rolled up his shirt sleeves, and he pushed back his cap, and he went to work. One section of side fencing he removed, and opened his property to the street, and he set up an old ottoman as a table; he spread newspaper out and placed piles of mushrooms along it and then he fetched himself a crate to sit upon.
He sat there every day after visiting the graveyard, and sold mushrooms in exchange for songs. He would listen to someone’s radio tuned to a station he’d never found before, or to a song on a cassette he’d never seen, and then he would hold his chin and pass his eye over the stacks of drying mushrooms and pick some he deemed suitable as payment. One day, a girl, not even five years old, sang a song to a tune only she knew, and with words she made up on the spot, and the Mushroom Man smiled his only smile for her, and shook her hand, and told her she was an angel who reminded him of a girl he’d once known. He took from his jacket pocket a penny whistle that hadn’t seen light of day for two years or more and said to come back when she’d learned some more songs to play.
Though, because none of these people who bought mushrooms for songs knew him before he became the Mushroom Man, not one of them recognised his wife when she walked through their dreams. Not one of them remembered the lilt of her voice and the songs she’d sing as she washed dishes, or the way her hair bounced sun rays in the summer. Nobody felt a rush of memory as her skin moved against theirs, or as she exclaimed the non-curses her mother had taught her.
And nobody remembered her in the morning when they woke up feeling just fine, when they hugged their loved ones at breakfast, or when they called their distant relatives on the telephone. Nobody knew her but the Mushroom Man, who every day put fresh newspaper down, and hauled another straw basket of mushrooms out of the shed and placed them in rough handfuls out for sale. He sat there in his hat and his coat and his washed-to-grey clothes, and he stared at who-knew-what as he waited to sell his wife’s mushrooms in exchange for new songs. He smoked his hand-made cigarettes through his tough yellowed fingertips, and he crossed his legs, and he looked like nothing more than a man waiting for a train.
And he did that every day until the day he died.