Act of God
The twins suspected it was alive, but they weren’t exactly sure if it was plant or animal.
Edith, white-haired and older by seventeen minutes, went to find a flashlight while Kat, blond with white roots, knelt to take a closer look. A small phosphorus organism, about as bright and arresting as a firefly’s glow, bloomed in the seam of the hall closet. It almost looked as if someone had chewed a piece of iridescence and stuck it, like gum, on the wall. But it wasn’t inanimate like gum; its surface was roiling as if something beneath was struggling to be born. Kat tried to call Edith back to be assured that she wasn’t imagining things, but Kat was struck dumb. A swell rose out of the glow until the head of whatever was fighting to get born pushed through, a fleshy bud, about the size of a newborn’s thumb. Kat gasped. Her breath must have disturbed the new life, or awakened it, because a puff of spores sprayed out, luminous and ephemeral as glitter. The closet housed their mother’s archives, the original letters from her advice column, the earliest dating back to the nineteen fifties when Consultations with Dr. Mimi was first syndicated. All they needed was for spores to land on one of the file boxes and start feasting on the invaluable old papers inside.
Edith shined the flashlight over Kat’s shoulder. They could now see clearly that it wasn’t a plant or an animal. It was some kind of mushroom, a fleshy speckled stalk, capped by a deeply oxygenated pink head. Edith gasped. They sounded identical.
“Where did it come from?” Edith’s voice quavered between stubborn disbelief and reverent horror. “How does a mushroom just start growing out of a wall, or is it growing through the wall? Oh my god, what’s behind it? You shouldn’t be so close, Kat. It may be poisonous.” She kept the light trained on it, as if the mushroom was under interrogation.
They decided not to touch anything until they spoke to someone with expertise in these matters. But who would that be? Who do you call? The Health Department, Pest Control, the EPA, the CDC, the Fire Department? Should they call the super?
But they both knew what Frank would do—nothing. He’d gawk at the mushroom, sympathize, light a cigarette even though Edith asked him not to smoke around the archive, and then call their landlady, Vida Cebu. Vida was an actress who had bought the building last year, a narrow, three-story, neoclassic row house on Berry Street in Brooklyn. She had restored the warren of dwellings above Edith’s apartment into a private house again, but she could do nothing about the parlor floor. Edith had inherited their mother’s rent-controlled lease—a tenant-till-death. And now Kat had moved in. Edith paid two hundred dollars and twelve cents a month.
While Kat peeked over Edith’s shoulder, Edith typed mushrooms, brooklyn into her computer’s search engine, but the only listings were gourmet stores selling truffles and porcinis.
“Isn’t a mushroom a type of mold?” Kat asked.
Big Apple Mold, Terminix, Mold be Gone, Ecology Exterminating Service, Basement RX, Empire Disaster Restoration. Who would have guessed there were so many mold specialists in their zip code? After the tenth answering machine, the twins realized that everybody was closed for the weekend. It was two o’clock, Sunday afternoon. Edith dialed the only one with an after hours number.
“Mold Be Gone,” a woman answered.
“Thank god someone’s there. We found a mushroom growing in our closet. What should we do?”
“I only work for the answering service, but I’d pour bleach on it and keep your air conditioner on high. Someone will call you Monday.”
The window units were already running at full tilt, and had been since the heat wave began twenty-six days ago. The temperature had broken last year’s record by two degrees. People were fainting in the streets.
The first thing the twins did was rescue their mother’s archives. Sixteen heavy boxes weren’t easy to move.
“It’s grown, hasn’t it?” Edith said breathlessly, staring back at the empty closet.
The mushroom now stood upright and had tripled in size.
Bleach might not kill it but surely it would stunt its growth. Edith found a Clorox bottle under the kitchen sink, Kat rubber gloves in the bathroom. Before uncapping the bleach, they tied handkerchiefs around their noses and mouths. The fumes immediately saturated the tight space. Eyes smarting, Edith tipped the bottle’s spout directly over the mushroom while Kat held a large tin foil roasting pan underneath to catch the run-off. When the first drops hit, the mushroom must have sensed its fate. Its gills shrank closed. Edith kept pouring. The thick stalk started going flaccid. The pink head lost its blush. She finished the bottle. The roasting pan was now a tub of bleach. Kat set it on the floor, under the obviously dying mushroom.
They watched its demise with profound relief. The more it withered and shriveled, the calmer they became. It shrank even faster than it had grown. Finally, it just hung by a tendril.
“I’m going to pull it off,” Kat said.
“Don’t touch it. I’ll get a knife,” Edith said.
The blade barely scratched the skin before the mushroom fell into the roasting pan.
They inspected the corner. The wall looked surprisingly clean, except for a pale spore-print in the seam, but even that seemed superficial. They scraped it away with the knifepoint. The mushroom had only been stuck, not rooted, to the wall.
They scrubbed the area three separate times, with bleach, with rubbing alcohol, with anti-bacterial dish soap, and finally, Edith sprayed Raid on it. Before cleaning up, Edith turned off the lights in the hall closet and shut herself inside to hunt for any luminous pinpricks of overlooked spores. Satisfied they’d eradicated all they could find, she and Kat carried out the roasting pan and dumped its contents in the gutter, including the now shriveled twist of fungi.
When they returned to the apartment, the closet had never looked so clean. It almost seemed as if they’d imagined the mushroom.
“That was so disturbing,” Edith said. “My god it grew freakishly fast. The head was so pink and bulbous. It almost looked like a giant’s thumb had poked through the wall.”
Kat waited to see if Edith would draw the obvious analogy, but she wasn’t sure if her white-haired, sixty-four-year-old sister had ever seen an erect penis. She suspected Edith was a virgin. The not knowing was an inscrutable power Edith held over her. All their lives, Kat told Edith the most intimate details about her lovers and escapades, whereas Edith confided nothing to her. All Kat knew was that Edith, before retiring, had worked in one of those anthill corporate law firms as the head librarian and lived with their mother until she died. Had Edith had a secret lover, perhaps one of the married partners? Surely Edith had been in love once or twice? Had she ever been caressed? Kissed? When they were children, they looked identical. But by their early twenties, you could barely tell they were twins. Edith was stout, Kat voluptuous. Edith kept her original brown hair color; Kat changed hers as often as she fell in love. It wasn’t just the physical differences. Their identical countenances expressed two very different souls. Edith wore their features sensibly and wisely. Kat gave them sparkle and animation. But these days, sharing the same clothes, the same meals, they again looked identical. Or did they? Kat had only seen her sister naked once since she’d moved in two months ago, when she had to help Edith bathe after a bad bout of flu. Edith’s skin looked almost translucent compared to her freckled, sun-damaged hide, but otherwise, they’d aged with remarkable similarity. Sponging her likeness, all Kat could think was that this is what she would have looked like had she never allowed herself to live and be loved.
Edith phoned Vida to report the infestation, while Kat returned to what she’d been doing before she saw the disturbing bloom in the closet. She’d been going through their mother’s archives, assembling The Best of Consultations with Dr. Mimi before Edith shipped the original letters to their permanent home at the Smithsonian next month. The archivist there was a friend of Edith’s and they’d planned a small exhibition in one of the libraries to mark the event. The book had been Kat’s idea to give the enterprise a little pizzazz. If only Edith would put aside her doubts. Sutton House Publishers had already expressed interest. Their mother’s advice column had been wildly popular in the nineteen sixties, an epistolary history of the burgeoning sexual revolution, running daily in over a hundred newspapers. Their mother was the first to call body parts and functions by their real names and answer sexual questions with nonjudgmental, instructional advice. Each letter began with Dear Dr. Mimi and ended with a surprisingly frank emotion and aplace to call home, Ashamed in Nebraska, Wicked in the Bronx. In between the salutations and the sign-offs, raw, guileless, enraged, mortified, slighted, embittered, sly, self-delusional, self-pitying, blunt, kind, dejected, heartbroken and heartrending voices asked questions about the inexplicable behavior of lovers, boyfriends, crushes, flirts, husbands, other men’s wives, other wives’ husbands, all their fellow creatures. It hardly mattered whether the question had been composed with a blunt pencil on a greasy brown bag or with a fountain pen on Plaza stationary, the letters basically asked the same thing—Am I lovable?
Kat knew that Edith dismissed her book project as just another excuse not to look for a job. The last few years had been lean and scary. Kat’s soap-making business had dissolved; then she'd lost her booth at the Eugene farmer’s market, and spent the fall living in a campground trailer amid the California redwoods. She'd met a fascinating crew, mystics and migrants who picked the marijuana crop and it had been glorious living in a prehistoric forest until winter came. Even then, when the ocean fog clapped against the frigid air and shrouded the mile high treetops, the behemoth trunks looked as if they were holding up heaven.
Kat regretted nothing about her life—not the many lovers, both gracious and brutish, not the failed sturgeon farm in New Mexico or the soap fiasco in Oregon, not the years as a Deadhead, not the singing lessons or the political street theater, not the exalted clarity of acid or the cheery bliss of alcohol—only this: when they were girls, Edith had worshipped her and now she pitied her.
Edith left an urgent message on Vida’s voicemail knowing beforehand that Vida wouldn’t answer. She never did when she saw Edith’s number flashing on her phone. Last week, Edith had left four messages about the fetid odor in the laundry room and another when the foul smell permeated the rear garden. Vida had been home the whole time. Edith had heard her sharp footsteps clatter across the ceiling.
She left Kat making a mess of the orderly archives and went downstairs to check for water leaks. The bulk of the letters were stored in the basement, hermetically sealed in double-strength plastic boxes.
The cellar was always jungle-hot in August, but that Sunday, after three and a half weeks of hundred plus temperatures, Edith felt as if she were descending into a live volcano. The ceiling was veined with old pipes, but none appeared to be leaking. She checked the archive boxes for any signs of mold, but the plastic appeared clean, the seals unbroken. Then she shut the lights and stood in the hellish heat, looking heavenward. A small eternity passed before her vision adapted, but gradually dozens and dozens of luminous pinpricks perforated the darkness overhead. She couldn’t tell if the stars were growing bigger and brighter, or if her pupils had finally adjusted. Whatever was blooming on the ceiling didn’t need a leak for sustenance.
Back upstairs, she left another message on Vida’s voicemail. “It’s me again, pick up, I know you’re there. We have a mold infestation in the basement. Kat and I found a mushroom growing in our hall closet this morning. I don’t have to tell you how disturbing all this is. Phone me.”
After she hung up, she stayed in her bedroom, alone, the door shut, her only sanctuary from Kat. Three months ago, she’d retired after thirty years as head librarian at Price, Bloodworth, Flom, Mead & Van Doren. She’d taken immense satisfaction in her work over the years, attaining a near omniscient knowledge of New York tort law, but the recent digitalization of her beloved legal tomes and the increasing stress on billable hours decided her. She had just begun to enjoy the quietude and attend to a few personal projects, such as the Smithsonian exhibition of her mother’s archive, when Kat called late one night from Port Authority bus terminal, asking to spend the night. Two months later, Kat still occupied the guest room with no prospects of affording her own place, unless Dr. Mimi’s Greatest Hits or whatever she called her book became a best seller. Edith had Googled Sutton House. They published novelty books. Her poor delusional sister had always mistaken irresponsibility for daring, eccentricity for originality, obsession for intimacy. That first night, when Edith opened the door for her bedraggled sister, Kat looked blurrier, as if she had become a poor, faded copy of her former self. Edith hadn’t seen her in nearly a year. She was dressed in her usual bangles and bright scarves, but everything about her looked smudged, except her blinding new smile. She’d had her front incisors capped in brilliant porcelain. Two big white tombstones in a graveyard of antique canines and molars. The dentist must have suggested a tamer white, something more muted that might better blend in, but her crazy sister must have insisted, I want the biggest brightest teeth you have.
Edith’s skin felt hot and clammy from the basement. Her air conditioner rattled in the window, but its cold breath brought little relief, a flower vase of water thrown on a grease fire. There were 12,000 BTUs blowing through the apartment, but Vida had registered the building as a historic site and all street-facing units had to be removed. The front half of the apartment, including the infested hall closet, was stultifying.
Sitting at her desk, Edith woke her computer. She wanted to identify the mushroom so that she could describe it accurately to the exterminators tomorrow. She typed—mold, fungi, bioluminous, rapid propagation, lack of water source—into the search engine, then clicked, images. Her screen filled with countless pictures of glowing mushrooms sprouting from walls, baseboards, acoustic ceilings, toilets, shower tiles, bathtub grout, drains, light fixtures, and a piano.
She didn’t normally read blogs or enter chat rooms, but that Sunday she found herself visiting websites devoted to every fear man experienced when the kingdom of fungi bloomed in his castle. She watched a Youtube video of a luminescent mushroom growing out of an electric socket while a baritone male voice with a Brooklyn accent kept incanting, “holy shit, mother of god, holy shit.”
His mushroom looked just like theirs. Or did it?
She read the comments below, though she knew what kind of hysterics and bullies posted opinions on-line.
bobandbarb: don’t call the New York City Health department, whatever you do, we made that mistake when we found the first glowing mushroom under our bed, and now we’re living in our truck.
Flatstomach888: ewwwwwwwwww. boo hoo!
grandmafairy: Don’t wait for the mushrooms to appear. Look for signs of memory loss and pulmonary hemorrhage. If you have symptoms for which the doctors cannot find a cause, I advice you to get out now.
prozacbaby: Just yesterday I tried to lie down for a nap and suddenly this overwhelming smell filled the room, it wasn’t making me gag but it made me get really scared. It smelled the way my grandfather smelled at the funeral home. Will I die soon? We’ve got mushrooms.
rollitup: does it smell like a faggot’s fart? faggot farts glow.
blazingwaffles: They burned down my rowhouse! Do you know who burned it down? The Brooklyn Fire department. Do you think your insurance will pay? Think again. Mushrooms are an act of God according to AllState.
Edith left another urgent voicemail, all the while listening, with mounting fury, to Vida’s footsteps overhead.