How To Survive Wild Mushrooms
I am standing on the fifteenth tee at the golf course where I play when a man pops out of the woods carrying a bag. It is a chilly morning. It is wet.
“Isn’t that Richard?” I ask. “Where are his clubs?”
Richard comes toward all of us, so we put down our clubs, waiting for him to pass. Richard is as much a story as he is a real person.
“You hunting golf balls or something?” I ask as he gets close enough to hear.
“No,” he says, pulling the plastic bag open. “I’m getting mushrooms. They’re all over the place.”
I look in the bag. It is full of mushrooms. But not the kind in the produce section and not the kind that West Virginians find in the spring. He’s got a bag full of mushrooms that look terrifying, small ones and big ones, dark ones and light ones, full ones and empty ones, everything.
“Richard, are you sure you can eat those?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s no problem.”
“But you could get really sick,” I say.
“No, it’s fine. I have a friend who tells me the difference. All you have to do is boil them all. The ones that float are the safe ones. The ones that don’t aren’t.”
I just stare at him.
“Okay, bye,” he says, and veers off into the woods again.
I’ve known Richard for a very long time. He used to rent an apartment down the street from my parents when I was growing up. I have memories of him forcefully marching up and down the street, on his way to something or on his way home.
When I came home after college, he was still around, but he’d moved out of that apartment into a different neighborhood. But now I saw him at the golf course where I was playing in the mornings before an afternoon shift, the golf course I’d grown up on, the golf course I still go to every Saturday. He had apparently been a regular there for years, but I didn’t remember him. And there, he was memorable for an entirely different reason: his severe mental illness.
Richard would go onto and off of whatever medicine it was that helped him to keep his world balanced, and it was easy to tell the difference. The popular joke among the course’s members was that Richard was always playing with a foursome, even if he appeared to be by himself. He would frequently have conversations with people that were not there. He would scream obscenities in what was presumably their direction. He would also play his own version of the course, teeing off on one hole and finishing on another. He always played by himself. His bag was always a mishmash of yardsale finds, often times taken apart and reassembled with no obviously apparent intent.
He was friends with the course’s pro at the time, a man who had known him growing up, a man who was always happy to see Richard come through the door. They were both numismatics and could wile away wet afternoons talking about coins and sifting through recent finds. The pro obviously had a soft-spot for Richard and there was talk that they had grown up together in the time before mental illness crept into the picture.
The club’s members always greeted him and he they but he was also frequently blamed when course’s greens were damaged. The popular story is that somebody saw him take a huge divot out of a green after missing a putt. Coupling that with the screamed obscenities and there was a certain sort of logic behind the idea that he was always responsible when such damage occurred.
But this also needs to be mentioned: Richard is a good golfer. Several years ago, when I was playing my best, he easily dispatched me in winning our course’s club championships. He was on his medicine then. There were no histrionics or hallucinations. There was just a guy methodically going around a golf course without making mistakes. When we finished the 17th hole with him up two on me, I congratulated him on winning and shook his hand. I was happy for him, seemingly happier than he was for himself. I do not know to this day if he even noticed that he had won. When I told him I could not catch him, he seemed taken aback that we were even keeping track. It was an odd moment.
These days, I still see him around town, and when I do, I say hello. He briefly snaps back to what I would describe as reality but I do not think he recognizes me or even realizes that I am the same person from up the street or from at the golf course. This despite having been occasionally in each other’s company for almost twenty-five years.
It is a few holes later and Richard is now walking across our fairway, his plastic bag in hand.
“Hey Richard,” I say. “How’s it going?”
He comes over to me. “It’s going great. I found this,” he says, and tilts the bag toward me. Now, besides the dizzying array of mushrooms from earlier, he has harvested something the size and shape of a brick. It looks profoundly upsetting, a mix of flashes of white and bits of mud. It might have been dug up or maybe cut off of the side of a tree. It is the sort of mushrooms that I have never seen consumed, even on the foodiest of shows.
“I hate to ask a second time, but are you sure about this friend of yours?” I ask.
Richard says, “Friend? No, I’ve got a technique. You just boil them. If they turn the water black, they’re poisonous. If they don’t, they’re fine.”
I stare at him and he stares back. “Gotta keep searching,” he says, closing the bag and marching off.
I saw him again, a few weeks later. I asked about the mushrooms. He told me he didn’t remember what I was talking about. He survived, I thought, so I let it drop.