The autumn before John left us, he and I devoted an entire day to the funghi. We hiked in the woods much of the morning, the dogs at our sides, and we filled a worn canvas sack with any specimens John believed to be edible.
Occasionally his opinion clashed with that of the Audubon Society's "Field Guide to North American Mushrooms," which we carried with us. And this invariably led to the darkest kind of humor.
"What's it gonna do, kill me?" he'd say of a particularly frightful-looking specimen.
I'd laugh along, of course. Under the circumstances what else was there to do?
The afternoon was devoted to eating what we'd gathered. John fired up the hibachi in his backyard, I went across the street and bought the butter he needed and a couple six-packs of beers I thought he might like to try. When I got back to his place John was standing next to the chicken coop he'd built, a bird in one arm, the 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 rinsed mushrooms now sunning themselves on his creaky wood deck. "But I think we'll be okay. We'll see."
"It's your party," I said handing him a bottle I'd opened for him. "Now, tell me again. How many times have you done this exactly?"
"Hm, that's good beer," is all he said.
I had already decided that, no matter what, I would consume every mushroom that my friend consumed — no exceptions — and that is exactly what I did that day. The preparation couldn't have been more rudimentary: a hot grill doused with plenty of butter, throw on 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 the funghi and most of the beers were gone.
I'm not in the business of serious storytelling, and so I'll be brief and allow you to be on your way. I survived John's crazy Festa di Funghi, and am, as you can see, still here to tell of it.
John isn't here anymore, but not because of the mushrooms. I still hike through the woods looking for them and, okay, 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. I just can't bring myself to without my friend.
They are awfully nice to look at, though, and so I just make due with that. And then try to move on.