The autumn before John left us, he and I devoted an entire glorious day to the mushroom. We hiked in the woods along the Maine coast for much of the morning, the dogs at our sides, and we filled a worn canvas sack with any specimens that John believed to be edible.
Occasionally, my friend’s opinion clashed with that of the Audubon Society's "Field Guide to North American Mushrooms," which we carried along with us. And this invariably led to the darkest kind of humor.
"What's it gonna do, kill me?" John would say of a particularly frightful-looking specimen.
I'd laugh along with my friend, of course. Under the circumstances, what else was there to do?
The afternoon was devoted to eating what we had gathered. John fired up the hibachi in his backyard, while I went across the street and bought the butter he needed to cook with and a couple six-packs of beers I thought he might enjoy trying. When I got back to his place, John was standing next to the chicken coop he had built, a bird in one arm and the open Audubon guide in the other.
Why is it that life's best photographs exist only in our memories?
"I'm not sure about all of these," John said of the cleaned and rinsed mushrooms, now sunning themselves on his creaky wood deck. "But I think we'll be okay. I guess we'll see, though."
"It's your party," I said, handing him the bottle I had opened for him, a bracing IPA. "Now, tell me again. How many times have you done this exactly?"
"Hm, that's good beer," is all John said.
I had already decided that, no matter how fearful a specimen might appear, I would consume every mushroom that my friend consumed — no exceptions — and that is exactly what I did that day. The preparation could not have been more rudimentary: a hot grill, doused with plenty of sweet butter, a few 'shrooms (eight or ten different types in all, I'd say), a little salt and pepper, that's it. Four or five batches of these we did, until all of the fungi and most of the beers were gone.
I survived John's crazy Festa di Funghi and am still around to tell of it.
John isn't here anymore, but not because of the mushrooms. I still hike through the Maine woods looking for them and, OK, for him sometimes. But I don't carry the Audubon guide anymore and I don't pick the mushrooms anymore, either.
I've tried to, believe me. But just cannot bring myself to without my friend.