“Is it on? …. Brad, is it on?”
“Yes, it's on.”
“OK. [louder] OK, so today we have a really exciting find out here--”
“Hold it John. Hold it. You have to introduce yourself.”
“I thought you were adding that stuff later.”
“I'll add some stuff but you can't start cold like that. You have to tell them what they're watching.”
“You didn't pick it yet, did you?”
“Naw I didn't pick it.”
“Ahem. Hello! And welcome---”
“Wait I'm not rolling. OK. Aaaand action.”
The moment the camera began recording, John crouched down onto his haunches, catching Brad by surprise. Brad panned down slowly to not make the shot jerky, just barely keeping John in the shot at all. John's head dropped to the bottom of the viewfinder before floating back up to center screen. Brad thought about calling “cut” again, but decided against any further disruptions. Anyway, he figured, they'd might as well set the amateur tone of this show early.
“Hello! And welcome to YouTube.”
Brad closed his eyes, wondering what it was John didn't get about this.
“This is John's Mushrooms of Mystery and I'm John Boreal. And today I get to show you a really neat find we, um, we found today just outside Snoqualmie, Washington, a really really beautiful area in the [louder for emphasis] beautiful Pacific Northwest. Show them the area a little bit Brad.”
You're the boss. Brad panned away from John to the forest around them, which Brad thought God must have created during some intense green phase of his artistry. Green ferns grew up from ground blanketed with green moss. Green vines crawled up trunks of the sitka spruce until they hit the branches that hung heavy with wet, green needles. The only thing that wasn't green were the mushrooms, one of which John was practically nestled up with by the time Brad panned back to his would-be star of YouTube.
John was breathing heavily, as if reclining on the forest floor was strenuous to him. The camera picked the raspy breath perfectly.
“This right here is called Man on Horseback, or uh, Canary Trisch, and it is, uh, a really tasty mushroom that a lot of folks even...” John paused for a breath “even in the mushroom community overlook sometimes.”
John kept squirming as if he wanted to get closer to the mushroom. Brad thought it looked ridiculous, but tightened the shot accordingly.
“Now, Brad, zoom in real close here and I'll show the YouTube some of the neat features of this little guy.”
OK, that's it. But just before Brad could say cut, John picked the mushroom out of the soft, mossy soil, to hold it up close to the camera, presenting it like a Madonna does with child. Let the scene ride its course.
“But other than the YouTube stuff did it go OK?”
They were bounding, John behind the wheel, down a rutted out forest service road back to town. Brad couldn't really explain why he was giving John the silent treatment. It was John's neck on the line with the video, not his. But something always felt a little arrogant about John's willful ignorance on anything that fell out of his narrow little world, a willful ignorance had been on full display today.
“Are there any other mushrooms coming up now?”
“Now? Well, I reckon sure, but they don't get much better than Man on Horseback. That's not one people know too much about. And thems were beauts.” Another thing that bothered Brad about John, when he was in a mood to be bothered by it, was the southern accent he spoke with, supposedly picked up in an upbringing that ceased to be southern at age 9. “Thems were beeee-outs.”
They'd done more takes in the patch of Horsebacks they'd come across, but each one was fatally marred by some mishap or other: Sneezing fits; disabled mics (that one was on Brad); case of mistaken identity – “whoa, now hold on that ain't Horseback” – that Brad captured on camera and deleted immediately, lest footage exist of eminent mushroom expert John Boreal misidentifying a mushroom. John said it was all the fuss with the shoot that threw him off. He got sloppy.
Back in the Bronco, Brad shrugged his shoulders. “Let me see what I can do with the edit. I guess the question is how bad you want to get to YouTube.”
Brad had gotten used to that exclamation of disinterest and disgust. Ever since John had knocked on his cabin door and asked him if he still had his digital camera.
“Aaaahpfff no real reason,” John had said when Brad provided the natural rejoinder, “Why?” “Just the publisher's getting squirrely about running a new edition is all. … Aaaahphff the gal there said somethin' about building a name for myself again. … ahh, social media or some crap. Phff.” By the time John had left the cabin he'd admitted the publisher wasn't going to run a new edition of John's thrice printed mushroom guide book, that John's name didn't carry the weight to compete on the shelves that it used to. He'd told them to send him on a lecture tour like they've always done, that he could pack in more miles than any of those queer novelists they've got – homophobic epithets still regrettably part of of John's wild-man schtick – but she'd said no. That's not how it's done anymore. How it is done was explained to John, but he related her instructions to Brad about as well as he could have relayed the important parts of an Aristophanes comedy after seeing it once in the Greek. But the important word was YouTube. That's why he needed a camera. “And a guy to press play, if you're up.”
Brad agreed out of friendship and being demonstrably without obligations, which was a distinct disadvantage he'd found to giving up all of life's demands to live in the woods near people like John. Demands are like gas; they will entirely occupy any space they are given, he found.
The Bronco now approaching the first gas station of North Bend, Brad allowed, “The one thing I'll say is you were you in it, John. And if you being you got you this far, maybe that's exactly what you needed to do.”
John sucked his teeth and gripped the steering wheel hard. “Aaaahpfff.”
Ever since John approached Brad about making some “web-iii-sooodes” – John would draw the word out like that to convey either confusion or disgust or contempt or whatever the feeling of the day it was he felt about this development – Brad knew this all tied back to a man named Marz. And if it didn't truly tie back to him, Brad at very least knew John blamed Marz, though John made a point to not say his name.
When Brad first moved to the little enclave of unincorporated King County after a layoff and too many years of coming home with a dull feel of impotency, Marz was living behind John's property in a rudimentary yurt that Brad shuddered to think served as his only protection against the steady onslaught of rain and sleet that rarely let up between November and June in these parts. John was Brad's closest neighbor; they shared a turn off from the county road, their mailboxes nailed to the same pole, but their driveways split different directions so their cabins were a half a mile apart. When Brad arrived at the cabin with first and only carload of possessions, John was the first person to introduce himself—he'd just been foraging, and had moss still stuck in his thinning white hair -- and invited him over for some mushroom tasting that evening.
Brad was embarrassed later to think how nervous he was to accept the invitation, so sure he was that this forest creature had some psychedelic trip-out planned. The frustrated novelist in him even sketched out a story line of a cabin that is always for sale to romantic urban ex-pats who quickly get snatched up and absorbed by the mystical Pacific forest people, never to be heard from again. A Tom Robbins meets Stephen King sort of tale.
But the dinner turned out to be more than benign; it was decadent to the point that Brad left John's cabin with a warm comfort that moving his entire life to a sopping wet crack in the Cascades may by chance have been the right decision. John was a published author of three mushroom books. One book was a guide for unusual uses of mushrooms. “See this sweater? I made the dye myself with Western Jack O' Lanterns. We'll have shroom tea later on.” Another was a thinky book called Dirt Cannibal about mushrooms representing a return to the dirt from whence we came – John allowed it was a rambling mess, but said he boiled it down to an essay that ran in Harper's. But the third was the money maker, John's Mushrooms of Mystery, a mushroom guide book so idiosyncratic with its generous use of exclamation points and sudden flights of poetry and philosophy – “If you find you've picked a false chantrelle, do not consider it a waste! Instead take a moment to reflect on ways you've changed yourself to look more attractive to others and less honest to yourself!” – that it was a cult classic.
Whatever John could not get with the income from the guide book he bartered for in mushrooms with other producers in the area. So he had wine that Brad's amateur tastebuds thought must be expensive and organic lamb chops from two properties over. And, of course, the mushrooms. “I keep the best for myself.” Brad had eaten plenty of mushrooms beyond the generic white buttons that come in cellophane in the grocery store, but that night at John's was something entirely different. The blanched chantrelles and matsutake and candy caps tasted to him like the whole of the forest's product, bark and soil and beautiful decay, a digest of everything that has ever lived in the endless forests that scraped against John's very kitchen window when the wind blew. Brad was later embarrassed about how animated he'd gotten that night, trying to put into words what he was tasting to a John, who just cast a knowing, wry smile. “Welcome to the bounty,” John said.
Marz didn't join them for dinner, but came in later to have some mushroom tea, which Brad thought too much fungus for one sitting and opted to keep to the delicious wine. When he came in, without knocking, John introduced him as “Marz with a Z no last name given.” Marz didn't flinch at the introduction, only put out his hand for a solemn handshake, which gave Brad an impression of humorlessness in Marz that would only be hardened in the years to come.
Marz had driven to John's house from Florida in a 1989 Datsun with the bed of the truck outfitted with a topper that allowed Marz to sleep in the back at night. He was a tiny man, 5'2 at the most, and was growing a meager beard that made Brad guess his age at 23. From his time working at newspapers in Seattle and Everett, Brad knew from countless sources yarning out their story it was common for Floridians to end up in Washington, and vice-versa; when people decide they don't belong in one place, their eyes naturally go to the opposite corner of our American box and press an index finger to the map. Here. Marz's sojourn was a bit more sophisticated, in that he first researched the Pacific Northwest after deciding Jacksonville was “not his jam,” which led him to research mushrooms, which led him to John's guide book in the Jacksonville Public Library. He then ordered away for the Dirt Cannibal, listed in the Also by this author section of the guide book and thereafter decided he must come be a student of John's. John quickly obliged when the tiny little human showed up on his doorstep holding D.C.; he later said he was a sucker for anyone who could get through that damn book.
Brad would often see the two leaving out John's back door, eschewing the tiny truck and John's Bronco to simply launch straight into the forest. The properties allowed that, both abutting National Forest land. Brad's cabin had a small field before the wilderness began in earnest; John's was tucked against the pines. Once you entered, right there from their property lines, you could hike to Canada without leaving the woods. But in John there was a disconnect: he had all those thousands of square miles to roam, and yet he would spend entire weeks studying an acre to know everything about it. This intense, almost neurotic observation he tried to teach Marz as central to understanding mushrooms. Like wine, he say, the mushrooms absorb all facets of its surroundings, from the rock 20 feet below it to the top of the doug firs above. He'd relay the lessons to Brad when they got together. Today he taught Marz the difference between this mushroom when it grew below a ceder vs. a Cottonwood by the Snoqualmie River. Yesterday he'd taught him that mushroom's need to for rotten wood. He laughed hysterically when, in Marz' presence, he told Brad that Marz' had suggested they eat some psychedelic mushrooms to key in their concentration. That he'd heard somewhere that's what Thoreau did at Waldon. Marz just looked sullen as usual while John laughed, obviously thinking it was a good idea.
If Marz was the son John never had acknowledged, which John sometimes suggested, it seemed to Brad to be a tense and joyless sort of relationship. Though he admittedly extrapolated from limited observations of the two, Brad thought he pretty well tell what going on: Marz had arrived with images of a monasterial existence where enlightenment would come through quiet contemplation of mushrooms, and perhaps some psychedelic trips, only to find himself the sober pupil of a hard and exacting teacher.
Either way, by the time Brad was going over footage of John's first foray into internet stardom, Marz was beyond prodigal.
After spending a year in John's back 40, Marz had left to continue “his education.” John predicted to Brad that the kid would never pick up a mushroom again. That he could tell he was boring the dickens out of him with some of the more advanced study. But then the website showed up in an email Marz sent to Brad; John didn't have a computer, let alone internet, so Brad had to call him over to his house to show him. MushroomMarz.com was a disorienting mess of tie-dye and swirling colors that featured an enormous picture of Marz, still unable to grow a proper beard but still wearing an improper one. The website's code bled raw at the edges of the page. There were “fun facts” listed on the left sidebar of the site and invitation to view Marz's photo galleries. But if you could look at it long enough to read main text, MushroomMarz was blatantly a sales site for psychedelic mushroom spores. “Grow Mother's gift in your own home!” was a typical statement, hyperlinked to a checkout page asking for credit card information. Another link: “Concentration through nature, not Aderall,” this one featuring a tiny 1 in superscript to its upper right, as if referring to a scientific study specified in a footnote that you could just go ahead and assume didn't exist, the footnote.
John was amused, and pleased to see a picture of his guide book under a header that read “The only guide book I trust!” Not that anyone would read the site, but it was a nice gesture.
John asked Brad to use his email.
“Marz – This is John. Good webpage! Glad to see you're still learning about the bounty. The pores you are selling are genus Psilocybe, not Panaeolus, which anyway doesn't mean “derived from Pan.” Picky picky teacher I know. Haha. Keep it up! – John.”
This guy's a published writer? Brad thought as he read over John's shoulder.
Marz never responded, the website didn't change, and it was all but forgotten in the wet stretch of wood for over the next year. Through John, Brad was plugged in to the surprisingly extensive artsy, aging-hippy social network of the area, which meant lots of large and generous meals if somewhat trying and clueless conversation for Brad's literal thinking. They would tease Brad that John had made best-friends with the last guy who lived in the cabin, that John didn't much care who lived there; whoever they were, they would always be his best friend as sure as that rusted out Bronco would always be his rig. John didn't fit the aging hippy mold—cheesy mushroom philosophy notwithstanding--clinging as he did to his crass, southern, Scotch Irish demeanor. But Brad could understand why he ran with this crowd: With them, they were the queers and he was the hick, a dynamic that certainly would be reversed were he to hang out with the local rowdies at the biker bars along I-90.
Brad didn't do much beyond work on his photography—he shot an entire year's worth of mushrooms with John for what John hoped would be a touched up fourth ed. of the guide book – and some writing. He didn't have any income, which he knew he wouldn't when he made the rash decision to move out there, and which he knew would eventually catch up to him. But he didn't think about that much. What mattered at that moment was he could track the seasons by how far the wisps of rain clouds had crept down the enormous cedars and firs and granite cliffs outside his windows. As the winter set in, the clouds would extend fingers, long and bony, down the trees, like a blind ghost feeling his way along an ancient wall. He grew to liking the woody flavored mushroom tea at night, and would sip it just at dusk when the evening chill set in and he comforted himself thinking that it was 15 degree cooler here than in the city, the distance that he felt in that.
And then word got to them about Marz's book reading in Seattle. John came over to Brad's house holding an alt-weekly newspaper another neighbor had brought him, asking him to use the internet. This was becoming tiresome to Brad, the constant need to use the internet. How long is he going to act as if he doesn't know what a computer is while at the same time constantly using mine. It's 2009 for Christ's sake! But Brad relented when he saw the paper. The neighbor who brought it was a trust-funder who had a sculpture show in the city, and had grabbed the paper in hopes she'd gotten a write-up. She didn't, but Marz did.
“Marz—he has no last name, which in undeniably part of his appeal—has become an underground hero to the young DIY mystics who populate Seattle's arts scene. He's technically a mycologist (aka mushroom smarty pants), but really he's a YouTube prophet of the bounty that could be ours if we just fucking left Capitol Hill once in a while and looked, but not in a cheesy Michael Pollen way. Really, kids, we're living in a bread basket here and we don't know it. And while we're mostly talking mushrooms you can bring home to the parents, that's just mostly. Legend has it Marz funded his self-published guide book selling psychedelic spores on the web, and regardless he's not shy about his love for what he calls 'the divine mushroom of immortality.' Local psychrockers Orwellian??Kafkaeque??!, who call Marz their spiritual shaman, will kick the reading off with an improv set. Don't miss any of it. Off Beat Gallery. 7 p.m. FREE.”
“Can I use your internet?”
John sat down at the desktop, itself no paragon of the modern technological age. He typed in MushroomMarz.com, which returned a 404 error. John looked up at Brad, as if he was already stumped, or perhaps scared he'd broken something. Brad told John to just Google Marz's name. John looked up dumbly.
With Brad back at the keyboard, they saw Marz had indeed published a book, only sold in select indie bookstores and, strangely, music shops in the Pacific Northwest. The search also turned up YouTube videos, showing Marz on the hunt for mushroom, displaying a jocularity that was entirely foreign to both men. There were also videos of him in the throes of hallucination, wailing like a whirling dervish. Someone under the tripping video wrote “Marz is my inspiration.” The forest in the videos looked familiar to Brad, but who could tell with the claustrophobic crush of green. John thought he could.
“And so even my woods have been caught in the world wide web,” John said.
Brad cringed at the antiquated tech language, and the bad metaphor. And yet.
The footage of John with the Horsebacks was as bad as feared. He said um and ah more than Brad had remembered, and interjected so many asides that it was hard to follow where the noun, verb and other bones of the sentence lay. Brad had told him he should write a script, or at least some notes. John said he was an expert, knew everything off the top of his head. “That's why you need a script,” Brad had said, to no avail.
To John's credit, he'd made Brad record way more b-roll of the monotonous forest around them, which Brad was able to splice into the footage to take an edge off the overwhelming amount of knowledge charging at the poor sop who typed in “Man on Horseback identification?” to Google. The trust-fund sculptor also had a folk album, the music from which she'd given John permission to use in his video. Brad found her voice as attractive as a lone goose crying out for its lost gaggle, but was able to nip enough guitar interludes to keep it to the benign plucking of acoustic guitar. Finally, Brad put together a small text intro for the pre-roll, the title of the show scrawled out in Comic Sans font per John's instruction (“Can you use that cool font where it looks like a kid's written it?”).
And so there it was, the first installment of John's Mushrooms of Mystery was finished. It ran two minutes and did truly, exhaustively explain what anyone needed to know about Man on Horseback mushrooms. Brad had to admit that John had a certain weird redneck charisma on the camera, especially when his thoughts really ran off the rails and he nosedived into a mumble only to explode into a quick fit of laughter from whatever he said to himself and only himself, the laugh not unlike those which the crazy old miners made in Saturday morning cartoons.
Brad called John over to play it for him. After a few seconds John gave Brad a high-five for scoring the right font for the title page, and then fell silent for the rest of the video, save for a few grunts of affirmation, like he was agreeing with the guy on the video. After it was done, he remained quiet for a few moments.
Finally he said, “And, so, then, people just are going to watch that on the YouTube?”
“Well hopefully your publisher can help push it out. This was there idea, right?”
“Push it out.”
“You know on...” but Brad quickly realized what it would take to explain to John the realities of getting traction with a video like this, the million things that need to be done right only to leave it to the random whims of internet epidemiology to truly find an audience. “If you're good with it, I'll put this up online, and you can email a link to your contact at the publisher letting them know this is out there and that it promotes the book.”
“And that's what Marz does?”
Brad was taken aback a bit by the mention of the name, which hadn't come up since John first came over with news of the publisher's newfound reticence.
Feeling a tug of empathy for his friend so clearly lost in this age, Brad just put it nicely.
“Yes, that's what Marz does.”
After seeing the notice of Marz's reading, after making clear to Brad in no uncertain terms he wasn't going to burn an ounce of gas to see that little queer if Marz didn't have the decency to invite him, John called every other mushroom expert he knew. That wasn't an easy task, he told Brad, given the way feelings get hurt in that business. After knowing John for years, Brad was just coming to realize how egotistical a field mycology was.
“None of them had ever heard of him. Not even Jules in Everett. No one,” John reported back. “Boy that Jules is still pissed at me, though. Boy.”
John wrote Marz an email, not mentioning the book but just asking after things. Brad told John he'd keep an eye out on the web for what Marz what up to – follow his videos and Facebook. The word “Facebook” made John growl, but it was the growl of a dog being bothered in his sleep: He didn't know what was bothering him; he just knew he wanted it to stop.
But the email went unreturned and it was John who first heard the bomb-shell and announced it with yet another unannounced entrance into Brad's cabin: Marz had gotten an advance to publish an actual mushroom guide from Peabody, an actual New York Publishing House.
“I just got a call from that Ruskie Bruce Vanticov. He's going to co-write it to help him with the technical stuff. Vonticov!”
The name meant nothing to Brad, and John took his silence as an invitation to continue.
“Vonticov was into his second edition at Peabody – dry as starch I may add. He calls me up mad as hell asking me if I'd called asking about a guy named Marz, like the planet. I said, yup, Marz just like a planet. You know what Vonticov says?”
Of course Brad didn't.
“They were discontinuing his run, but they let him share a byline with this no-name! Or one-name, to be more exact. Marz. He's asking me who the hell this kid is. So I tell him what I know, and all he can say is the 5th Avenue types who sit around thinking what books will sell say this guys gonna open up a whole new market of brush pickers. Brooklyn and Portland hippers”
“Whatever. 20 year olds who need a manual to know which end the shit comes out of thinking they're going to leave NYC and go live in the forest as soon as they figure out which subway to take. They say he's already got the audience, demanded a price to sign on with the pub house. For a mushroom book!”
“Vonticov's mad as hell. Tried to blame me. Asked me why I took the kid in. I told him he was the only one who read my best book. Vonticov laughs. He knows the one. Says I'm the only guy who's written 2,000 words about morel without a paragraph break. I think he'd hit the potato vodka already. Mad as Yeltsin.”
John looked like he'd had a sip himself. Brad retrieved a bottle anyway and poured two tall glasses of brown liquor. Brad raised his glass: “To the new generation.”
It wasn't long after hearing from Vonticov that John got news about his own 4th edition. Brad was happy to hear that when the rep started talking about building his name again, she didn't say the word Marz to John. That z cut deep now. Their parting was more than amicable. Marz telling John it was time for him to move on, while the weather was holding up. The melancholy but efficient way they folded up the old canvas yurt together, which John then told Marz he should be taking with him. Marz accepting. A handshake that turned into a hug that seemed to be headed for tears but didn't, and then the last remnants of the dust kicked up by the old Datsun evaporating into the August sun. And then just nothing, and then the website, and then this, this assault.
Brad pre-ordered the book, and when it arrived he told John he had it but emphasized John didn't need to look at it if he didn't want to. John was over in minutes. It was titled “Mushroom Marz: My personal journey with the bounty of the bark and soil.” John ripped it open and just started reading, yelling “wrong!” or “Et tu Vonticov?” at blurbs he disagreed with and “Plagiarism!” at blurbs he thought correct. He read it through in three hours, sitting the whole time on Brad's horsehair sofa without rising once. When he was finished he looked up at Brad in rage.
“That queer dedicated the fucking thing to Pan. To fucking Pan! From the Greek! And then he thinks to thank me in the back along with someone named Moonbeam and the copy monkeys at Peabody?” The book went flying across the living room, landing face down so Marz author bio looked up. His beard had finally come in, but his eyes still looked to Brad joyless, and now, given everything that happened, conniving. Brad would later see the special thanks entry in the back, under a section that read “mushrooms aren't the only thing that make me strong.” John's name in size 8 font. He also noted the extended section devoted to psychedelics. Brad had to hand it to Marz: He'd figured out where the money was in this mushroom business, and it wasn't Horsebacks.
John's video had been up 10 months by the time Marz and Vontikov's book had come out, and had registered 200 views. Brad hadn't told John about this pitiful showing, and John hadn't asked.
When John returned to Brad's cabin two days after reading Mushroom Marz, he didn't knock, burst in as Brad was hovered over the first passage of his own prose he'd considered worthwhile in months. John seemed just as mad as he was when he left two days before.
“Find out when he'll be in Seattle,” John screamed, pointing at the computer.
Marz was Googled. The book tour schedule was found. The Seattle date and time was noted. Brad drove, the Bronco being what John called “a towner rig,” meaning it couldn't break 40 miles per hour. The reading was being held in an airy bookstore on Capitol Hill, a gay friendly neighborhood of Seattle. Brad lightly broached the subject as they drove the interstate into the city, and John picked up the hint: “Ah I just say that queer stuff for effect. That kind of stuff used to sell books; no one wants a professor telling them what to eat, especially if it comes from dirt, and the hippies who read me have a weird thing about not wanted to be the kind of people who only associate with other hippies, so I became the loose cannon hick that can name the latin and wasn't afraid to get gushy about the woods and knock your teeth out all the same. Not that I didn't believe in everything I wrote. It's just I'd pick on the queers to keep people thinking I was, I dunno, from the backwoods. Anyway it worked.” John paused. “Worked.”
He'd hoped to find Marz before the reading, so he could say his piece and be done with it. Brad couldn't get John to tell him what the piece was, exactly. Brad didn't understand why he wanted anything to do with Marz.
But the new author didn't appear until he was introduced, his name drawing a cheer from the crowd that had filled the place, and John and Brad were trapped for the reading. “Never seen that before,” John whispered to Brad as he looked around at the people clapping. Brad would never admit it to John, but when he read through the guide he saw some genius in it; less quirky than John's guide, less ponderous than Dirt Cannibal, but yet something truly thoughtful: A handbook for a fuller experience in the brush that resonated like a beautiful cello with his own experience molting from city-person to country-person. He understood the cult following that seemed to have formed around Marz, Not that he had any joy seeing the tiny man take the podium.
“Thank you Seattle!” Marz said it like a rock star, and the crowd cheered as such. He was wearing a sweater that Brad could recognize by now as one dyed with mushrooms, with a gray blazer over it. His black hair was pulled back into a neat bun. He took a dramatic drink from his tea mug and then continued, almost sotto voce. “It is so nice to be back. This is weird but I want to start by talking about Facebook.” Some in the crowd gave a joking boo. “No, I know, right? Boo. But I, um, I, like, suck at Facebook, like, I have a Wooly Pine Spike, this amazing mushroom, for my profile picture, which, like, what high school classmate is going to recognize me as the one who looked like a fungus—maybe a lot I don't know...” The young crowd erupted in laughter, the kind of laughter a performer gets when he's already won the crowd over before he takes the stage. Brad looked over at John, who in turn looked around him with a stoney coldness, as one looks upon that which has taken away everything from him.
“But, like, anyway, I went on there to my author page – which also shows me as a mushroom [laughter from crowd and Marz] and what I saw there was that I'd say that after this amazing year working with amazing people in New York and the a-ma-zing Bruce Voncinov my co-author that 50 percent of my fans are still from the Pacific Northwest and so I just want to start off by saying thank you thank you thank you for your love and nourishment and if there's one thing about my Facebook profile picture that's true is that, like a mushroom, I soak up all that nourishment that is given to me. So, um, so yes. Thank you.” Another hearty applause.
The rest of the reading went like that. It was hard for Brad to reconcile his memories of Marz in the yurt behind John's cabin and the man standing at the podium, laughing and enchanting the crowd with his halted jokes that every time added a second punch-line, after the funny one, that was meant to show the profundity truly at play.
And then it was over and a line formed to get the book signed. Brad and John got in it. As the crowd crept forward in silence, Brad thought of what John said in the car about being a guy who could punch your teeth in. The queer stuff aside, he'd never imagined John as a violent person. But he suddenly feared he would sock Marz across the jaw when he reached the author. He'd seemed cornered these past weeks, confined, but not defeated, which is a dangerous thing to be.
“John, you cool?” Brad whispered.
So we'll wait and see.
Marz was looking down, fiddling with his felt marker when John reached him. John announced his presence with the thud of Mushroom Marz being dropped from three feet above the table. Marz startled violently, then looked up.
He began to stand up to hug or shake hands on equal footing but either way quickly saw that wasn't John's desire.
“Hi, uh, John.”
“Why didn't you write? Call? What's with this goddamn silent treatment like I ain't nothing?”
A woman with Marz behind the singing table, wearing an ensemble too hip to place her anywhere but the publishing industry, looked up from her phone and sternly at John. “Marz, do you need this man removed?”
“Like you could missy...”
“No, no, it's fine. John can we catch up afterwords? I mean, there's a lot to catch up on.”
“Damn right there is. But no, now. Why? What the fuck did I do to get stuck between Moonbeam and the good people at Peabody on your thank you list. A whole year! 12 months you stayed with me!”
“Marz, you need to keep this line moving and this man is being aggressive.”
“No. Look, John, what you taught me, God, that year, it was it. It made me.”
“Damn right!” John jammed his index finger into Marz's book.
Watching this, Brad saw John speaking with pure rage. That surprised Brad. He'd assumed there was some personal hurt beneath John's anger that, whether it came out in tears or a shot to the jaw, would somehow reveal itself when father finally addressed son again. But there wasn't, and Brad got the strange sensation John wasn't speaking to Marz, but to an avatar of all the years that had passed since he was last published, like a sad man cursing at grains of sand as they slipped through the pinch of the hour glass.
“Look, John, I've thought a lot about this. I got your email a few months ago. I, um, anyway. But toward the end, when I started asking you about the psychedelic stuff, you were very condescending and treated me like I was just some dumb kid looking to get high. Like I couldn't handle the concentration the way you could, like nobody can match the observations of the great John Boreal. John you asked me and I'm going to tell you and it has to be quick because you say you can't wait, so let me finish. And when I told you you should make a website you laughed. And when I sent you my website you wrote four sentences and three were correcting me. And when I got that email, something broke. I could feel it, but I couldn't place it, so that night I meditated on some medicine and right then decided that you were in my past, and that's where you belonged and where you had value, but that your negative energy had no place in my future if I was going to make this happen.” Marz made a sweep with his hand that took into large bookstore that was crowded on his behalf. “And I must say it worked. I made this happen.”
John's jaw hung open. The young publishing woman looked up with a there, satisfied? look. John drew a ragged breath, but when he exhaled his breath carried now words. He simply turned away before Marz could see his tears. As they left, Brad looked back. Marz already looked recovered, was signing books, selling book, winning fans, landing jokes. Again Brad had to side with Marz on this: Putting John in his past worked. Worked wonders.
Conversation came slowly on the drive home, first with a few random pops in the silent ice and then a tenuous flow through the cracks.
“How's my YouTube doing?” John asked.
Brad was honest with the number, if deceptive in the hopeful tone he took.
“Huh. Not bad.”
A cold wind blew over the speakers for a while, but Brad found not talking about Marz too oppressive.
“That Marz, he sure pours it on with the magic mushroom stuff, eh?”
This drew an indiscernible grunt from John. A laugh? A rebuke?
“Why, uh, why don't you dabble in that much?”
“Yeah, I've never seen you take em or serve em or anything.”
John broke into the sudden kind of laughter only he could break into.
“That first night you came over to my place, you think you came up with all that shit about eating the forest yourself?”
Brad bought the video camera he used to tape John while still a photographer for the Everett Herald living in North Seattle. He purchased it with his own money in a somewhat desperate attempt to make himself “more marketable” to the paper he was already employed by. The collapsing newspaper industry was funny like that. It put everyone in the mindset of a job-seeker, every day trying to update the resume their bosses carried around in their heads. Only the thing you were applying for wasn't a higher wage or more responsibility, but simply to stay off the shortlist for the next round of layoffs.
Brad had thought learning to shoot and edit video for the paper's website would help his chances. And it did for a while, but eventually economics caught up to him, or perhaps economics had always had his neck in the guillotine and it finally decided to let down the blade. Either way, Brad one day was called into the editor-in-chief's office.
He was 40 by then, divorced with no kids, and still moderately flush with the inheritance that had allowed him to buy the camera with cash. His father had been a compulsive saver. They come in worse models, he'd joke. After his last day at work he went home, poured himself a tall glass of whiskey, sat down at his computer, and logged into a photographer message board he knew to be frequented by bitter ex-shooters looking to commiserate. Everett Herald, 1992-2005, Brad wrote, like a line in on a C/V, as was the style in this chat room that knew all too much about jobs going bust. The responses came quickly.
L/O or Q?
Best day of my life looking bk
Yeah who needs money and health benefits and a retirement
Reporters take better photos with their flip-phones anyway
Reporters? Just have the interns do it all
Interns? Aren't there high school kids itching to get some experience?
Brad took a log sip of whiskey and took his hands off the keyboard, happy to sit back soak in the gallows banter. He thought for a moment he should be ashamed of himself, that he'd turned down invitations to spend the evening with actually human beings in order to drink alone and type on the computer, but he knew they were all charity invites. If they all think he's at home thinking about offing himself, so be it. He typed:
Just one thing: Whoever said video was the next wave, fu. U owe me a grand
Looking back, he always remembered his layoff in the muscles of his shoulders. He could still feel it years later when he sat in his cabin, watching clouds creep down or John's wood smoke waft up. When he was brought into the office and given the chat he knew was coming for so many years and fought against in so many ways, his arms were overcome with a feeling of release. It was as if they'd been holding onto a branch over a river, fighting the rapid current for years, and finally were able to let go. They the arms relieved thought it meant the death of the body as a whole.