Okay, brace yourselves. The dog has cancer of the penis. The dog’s name is Scruffles. (The goat in the photo is not in the story.) There is a mythic carnival ride called the Wonder Wheel. A friend runs over a woman’s leg while driving drunk and ends up in an L.A. jail. Rip Van Winkle is here. And those mushrooms. Trinie Dalton is a new friend and colleague on the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s terrific. She gets the conventional short story by the neck and gives it a shake. She has written and/or edited five books, and her fiction includes Wide Eyed (Akashic), Sweet Tomb (Madras Press), and the forthcoming Baby Geisha (Two Dollar Radio). “Escape Mushroom Style” will be in Baby Geisha and was previously published in the #6 issue of an Australian journal called The Lifted Brow.
Escape Mushroom Style
By Trinie Dalton
The animal hospital looked out upon the Wonder Wheel, an antique ferris wheel constructed of enough metal to build four skyscrapers. Plate glass windows in the waiting room gave the office, where Scruffles and I awaited a meeting with a soft tissue surgeon, an airy feel. But carnival views don’t make cancer fun. I stroked Scruffles, panting at my side with a golf ball-sized tumor hanging off his dong. Snake skinned ladies, men with gorilla wives, fire-breathers, poodles riding tricycles, elephantitis—it had all gone down here on Coney Island. Penis tumors were probably old hat. Made sense that a polluted beach would be a mutant culture hub. The world’s oldest roller coaster loomed three blocks away. Was this vet going to be Siamese twins? Suddenly, it was moronic instead of ironic that I had considered administering dog cancer treatment at a facility bordering a decrepit amusement park. It was more moronic that I lived nearby.
“Scruffles?” I asked, scratching his woolly, red left ear. “Will you feel like a freak if we operate?”
Scruffles wagged his tail. Any question involving upped intonation at the end of the phrase produces in him a hope for fish.
I kept this appointment because I needed a surgeon’s opinion.
The receptionist called us in. The doctor was not a Siamese twin but rather an emaciated man whose head reminded me of a calavera azucar, a Day of the Dead sugar skull. He groped my dog in a twitchy way and recommended something horrible.
“I’m not removing anything except the tumor,” I vowed, petting Scruffles as I committed to keeping his body intact.
“He’ll die,” the surgeon said. Who was he to issue the death sentence?
I slammed the office door on the way out.
Soft tissue surgeons are too obsessed with slicing to know what you do and don’t cut. It’s just not right. Amputating a dog’s penis is ludicrous, I fumed in the taxi home. Scruffs panted, which I took as agreement. What would I tell people when they ask where my dog’s organ went?
A week later, I left Scruff at home with three chew toys and took the train instead to ride the Wonder Wheel, whose cars, every quarter rotation, swing out on railings to the edge of the wheel’s circumference. These cages, called the Danglers, dangle you over the boardwalk like a hooked worm being lowered into a lake of big mouth bass. My brother and I, swinging every two minutes, questioned how long our corroded cage would hold. We needed a meaningful conversation during our limited time together, while he visited. Today, we cried a lot. Privacy was non-existent in this city, and we needed some. At least on the Wonder Wheel we had a car to ourselves.
“We’re breaking up,” he said, of him and his girlfriend. Tears welled.
“Don’t amputate,” I said, meaning, don’t cut her out of your life. “It’s not an ending, just a change.”
Break ups or terminal illness, what’s worse? Why compare? This was our discussion as our car teetered above skeeball players and kids ramming bumper cars. The toxic Atlantic was on the left, and the veterinary hospital lurked right. From up here, New York was semi-manageable, as microscopic as the toadstool world I prefer to live in.
“That’s where they told me Scruffles had four weeks to live,” I pointed down at the speck of an animal hospital, starting to cry. Wind whisked away my tears.
“That’s some sad, salty rain,” I said of my tears melodramatically falling on people below.
“Forget that vet,” Lolly said. I nicknamed him Lolly when we were kids, because he had a big head on a skinny body, like a lollipop. “Scruff’s a survivor.”
“You’ll live too,” I said.
“Have you tried natural remedies?” Lolly asked. We gripped the bars sealing our metal cage and swung.
“Next week I take Scruffles to the herbalist,” I said.
I have over a thousand mushroom photos under my belt. Last time I counted I was nearing four digits, so I began excursions to Rip Van Winkle’s home turf, the clove where Irving’s character allegedly fell asleep. Downy, purple Cortinarius, a favorite fungus, grows under hemlock between blue slate outcroppings there. I may be approaching twelve hundred shots. I take road trips to my hideaway hills upstate after heavy rains. I’ve collaged my images, written amateur essays, and attended lectures at the natural history museum about how genetic mushroom identification is outmoding Linnean taxonomic charts common to field guides. The mycological society recently performed a play there riffing on Doctor Faustus, in which nerds portrayed mushroom collectors haunting Faust, who sold his soul for a lifetime supply of morels. Now, that’s Coney.
Coney is the word I use to describe the grotesque and twisted, something so disturbing its funny. Something New York, something convoluted, something ill-flowering, like a wart. A friend who just returned from China was telling me over a shrimp salad dinner that markets in Beijing sell grubs-on-a-stick. That’s Coney. He handed me a menu he’d lifted from this Beijing restaurant called Escape Mushroom Style that listed fifteen pages of mushroom-based dishes—our collective reverie—minus one page of various sheep dick entrees. Coney.
I used to peddle organic produce at health food conventions. Frequently, my booth was across from the reishi booth, always the most sparsely attended table. Littered with finger-like, brown, red, and orange striated conchs alongside pamphlets printed in Mandarin, the reishi table was considered by most to be mysterious and sketchy.
“Is that a mushroom cult?” people whispered as I fluffed up kale bundles.
Reishi contains anti-cancer agents, and is a detoxifier that has been used in tea, powder, and extract form for thousands of years. It’s a preventative. I was confused about why people avoided eye contact with the reishi promoters, as if looking at or thinking about cancer cure would promote neoplasmic growth. Aversion to disease and the oddities surrounding it is weak. One cannot stay well without facing illness. Camped next to these mushroom enthusiasts for days straight, I read their literature, heard the miracle tales, and thanked Coney I didn’t have cancer. Chinese medicine is righteous. I stored the mushroom’s healing potential in the back of my mind, like a chestnut.
It was during this healthy period that I selected Scruffles from a box of barking pups. His spotted paws won me over. A proud new pet owner, I headed to the local new age bookstore and bought pet books with wolf covers, to study canine acupuncture and flower remedies. At the time, I lived three thousand miles away. For over ten years now, Lolly and I have taken turns parenting this dignified canine.
Thursday after the Wonder Wheel tears, I took Scruffles to a Chinese herbalist in Manhattan. She had long, black hair, and her hands and arms were ringed with silver and copper jewelry. She smelled friendly, like bok choy fried in ylang ylang.
“He looks really well otherwise,” she said. I inhaled her positivism as I would a fresh chanterelle.
“How long does he have?” I asked, grasping my tissue just in case.
“Years if the herbs work,” she said. “But you must remove that tumor soon.”
“Tuesday,” I said, committing to a date. She was the doctor to trust.
We left with a sack of herbal tinctures, a list of foods Scruffles could eat, and recipes for his home-cooked meals. Scruffles and I now eat the same stew: poultry laced with turmeric, sea salt, carrots, and other “cooling” veggies. Twice daily he gets syringes full of serums, multi-vitamins disguised as cheese powder, and Indian rhubarb extract alternating with aloe vera juice poured into his purified water. Bad tap water may have caused all this. When Scruffles was young, I put citrine and smoky quartz crystals in his water bowl, at least, and hoped for the best. Nowadays, I dose both of us with everything because it can’t hurt. We are on a permanent wellness kick.
I mediate trauma in unproductive ways. I twiddle my fingers, or apply lipstick only to immediately remove it. I cook food and forget to eat it. After deciding against radiation, which meant thousands of dollars and a month of anesthetizing the dog several times per week, all my dreams cropped up stinkhorn. Those putrid mushrooms that I most detest because they look like dog dicks, sprouted out of Scruffles’ coat, appeared in salads and stir-fries I ate. Came out in the tap with the water.
Years ago, when I toured the Kew Gardens mycology archive, the director opened one of Charles Darwin’s herbals and displayed a 150-year old stinkhorn. He told me that Darwin’s daughter considered it pornographic. Cancer is Coney porno. I couldn’t translate these stinkhorn visions. I hoped the visions meant that Scruffles’ pain was transferring into me. Healing is exorcism, a withdrawal and transference of the unwanted. I wanted to be the medicine woman who could kill, neutralize, and dissipate my dog’s mutating cells. Step one was to physically remove the growth; step two was to escape the Coney.
Two weeks after the procedure, Scruffles and I drove north to the foot of the mountain where Van Winkle passed out on ale. I called Lolly on cellular from the rock Rip might have napped on and explained a theory.
“Tie some feathers in your hair,” I said. “Crow, eagle…anything but pigeon. The feathers will fortify you.”
“You’re regressing,” Lolly said. “I haven’t heard these mystical hippie theories since you were a vegetarian ten years ago.”
“Look,” I said. “Feathers can’t hurt. Put them on your dashboard if you can’t bear wearing them.”
There’s a comical scene in I Love You Alice B. Toklas, when Peter Sellers shows up in a fringed leather jacket for his conservative brother’s tuxedo wedding. He’s covered in feathers, and the movie is one big happy ending from there.
“We’re talking on cell phones,” Lolly said. “Feathers are retro.”
“Is Rip Van Winkle too retro for you?” I asked.
I considered chucking my phone into the stream running five feet over where Scruff was drinking. A woodpecker hacked at an elm tree. I’d have to email everyone for their numbers again, plus I couldn’t talk to Lolly. The golden handcuffs.
“Your cell phone is probably giving you cancer right now,” Lolly said.
“Luddite,” I said.
“Aren’t you the Luddite, avoiding the city? Call me when you forgive civilization,” Lolly said. “I’ll be at the bar with my scotch on the rocks.”
I didn’t lodge in a tee pee. I shacked up in a Catskills dive motel. A junky walked laps around the building, and whole families manned lawn chairs on the motel room porches. A pimp ran girls between his grass green sedan and his room. I had mushroom guides sprawled out on the bed, where Scruff and I watched M*A*S*H reruns.
“Feeling okay?” I asked him, petting him beside me on the bed. Every time I looked at him my eyes went automatically to his shaved crotch, and I felt nasty. His six-inch, stapled incision looked clean and was healing properly.
Scruffles smiled and hung his tongue out. He was tired from hiking. I refilled his bowl of water and set it beside him.
Next morning, we headed out early. We didn’t see Rip as I’d hoped but it was a breezy autumn day, and planks crossed wet meadows to preserve plant life. Mushrooms sprouted on every dead tree trunk: oysters, maitake, sulfur shelf. Scruffles peed on rocks as we bushwhacked up a ravine. We shared turkey sandwiches again in that special hemlock grove.
My cell phone sounded so out of place. West coast: I answered.
“Will you accept a collect call from L.A. County Jail?” an operator asked.
Lolly was drunk driving, hit a fire hydrant and a lady at a bus stop. Luckily, only her leg was broken.
“How do you run over a leg?” I asked.
“I don’t remember,” Lolly said. “She has a leg cast. I need five grand,” Lolly said.
“That’s my feather money,” I said. “I want to show Scruffles a good time instead of radiation.”
“I’m in prison!” Lolly said.
“Give me a minute to think,” I said. Scruff’s ears were perked up, ready to think too.
“Good boy,” I said. “Find some money.” Mr. Van Winkle’s buried treasure?
Money-wiring plans were made, and I folded my phone shut, slid it into my pocket. Coney phone. The woods and the city are the same some days. If bad news was bricks, I’d live in a fortress.
Scruffles licked my calf. I threw some rocks and packed it up.
On the path back, Scruffles located a shiny polypore whose skin actually reflected sunlight. It was a brown-red conch with ochre stripes edging its rim. Reishi? Different from the brown, whose velvetine skin you can carve pictures into. I snapped it off the tree trunk and carefully put it in my pack to shoot and I.D. later.
The nearest Catskills bail bonds place was across from Kozy Kitchen, a Coney diner decorated with baskets of silk flowers and gingham fabrics. I wired all the cash I had in the world and planted myself in a booth for coffee. Scruffles was tied up outside. Cranked on caffeine, I then wandered down the block to the scented candle shop, to soothe myself with the smell of beeswax until Lolly called with release news. My sibling is loveable but he gets sailor-style drunk. One D.U.I. ago, he fell asleep at the wheel and drove into some park’s tennis courts. I get jealous of people who rest assured that if they go unconscious someone will be there to help. Scruffles would rescue me, if he could.
The dog and I stopped for one more overnighter on the way back to Coney. I was broke now, and I wanted to show Scruffles one last good time. He wags his tail at motel room doors and stares at their doorknobs until I let him in. Then he jumps on the bed and readies himself for television. Knowing he truly appreciates my meager gifts brings me joy. I charged the motel on my credit card just to get this reaction out of my dog, which must say something bizarre about me.
“You’re blocking the view,” I said, on the king size with Scruffles as the sun set, watching nature documentaries. During commercials, we took turns with the remote; he can change channels if he paws it hard enough. How will I face life without this guy? I took the polypore out to identify it. It was glossier than Ganoderma applanatum, the reishi I knew. Soft, corky, flat, zoned, red-varnished cap with white to dull brown pores…in its stalked form, this is the ancient Chinese ‘mushroom of immortality,’ also called the ‘herb of spiritual potency.’ Red reishi, or Ling Chih: Ganoderma lucidum. An even better anti-cancer.
“You found Ling Chih,” I said. “Good dog.”
Scruffles licked his chops. Coneylicious. Fortified for impending night, it was back to the city in the morning with red reishi and my Frankenweenie.