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It was right around Thanksgiving when Harold’s wife, Esther, noticed that he had begun to change. She had never linked the change to any particular cause. Just before Christmas he began to come back up from the cellar less and less after the usual amount of time he used to spend down there, tending his mushrooms. She would open the door to the cellar, really just a half basement, and holler down to him.
“Harold? Harold, are you coming up? It’s bedtime, you know.” His voice would drift up, vague and garbled, with some unintelligible response. She would sigh, close the door and head off to bed. On the rare occasions when he would emerge, he would hunch over a bowl of Rice Krispies at the kitchen table and not make eye contact with her.
This new hobby of his began to take more and more of his waking
hours. It started with a free copy of Mushroom Weekly, a bowling buddy of his had given him. Soon he had begun subscribing.
Mushroom Weekly, whose mission statement is “Putting the fun back in fungus,” was followed by subscriptions to The Mushroom Gardener and American Mushroom Digest.
He took to spending days and then weeks down there. Eventually, he just stopped coming up from the basement altogether. His wife would leave toasted cheese sandwiches on a tray at the top step of the stairs, along with a Coke or sometimes a root beer. She would return a few hours later to find crumbs and the used napkin crumpled into a ball and stuffed into the empty glass.
One night, down in the cellar, Harold waited, breathing shallow breaths. Now, it was only a matter of time. For months he’d been breeding and cross-breeding his largest specimens until he succeeded in growing the largest mushroom he’d ever seen or heard of, probably the largest mushroom known to man. And that was the beauty of it. It was as large as a man. With careful pruning, sculpting, forming and nurturing this largest of mushrooms, the plan was coming together. In the dead of night, he would carry it upstairs and tuck it into bed next to his wife. In the morning, she would wake up, roll over and get a load of the giant mushroom. He had faith that her two flaws, her poor eyesight and weak ticker would lead to her sudden demise. No one would ever be the wiser. He would ship the mushroom to the Ripley’s Museum, collect on her life insurance and inherit her family’s wealth.
Having installed the man-sized mushroom in his wife’s bed around midnight, Harold couldn’t control his glee. In the morning, he tiptoed to the top of the basement stairs, holding his breath, waiting for Esther to wake up and then for what he thought would be the inevitable, blood-curdling scream and then . . . and then . . . for the silence, the awful, wonderful silence. But the scream never came. Instead, he heard the clanging of pots and pans coming from the kitchen.
Harold put his ear to the kitchen door. Certainly, someone was busy in there and he could smell bacon frying and coffee brewing – and he could hear humming – some kind of gospel tune, it seemed. He stepped into the room and discovered – not Esther – but a large black woman in a green uniform. She saw him and without a smile said, “You muz’ be Mizah Oberman.”
“I am . . . and who are you?”
“Miz Polly from Happy Housekeeping. You jus’ call me Miz Polly. Yo eggs and yo bacon gonna be done in a sec’. You can sit.” Harold did as he was told.
“What is happening here? I don’t understand,” he said.
She plopped a plate of something greasy looking onto the table and scratched her buttocks absently. Harold poked his fork at the gray eggs and looked up.
“Where’s my wife?” In response, Polly’s face brightened as she
appeared to remember something, fished a pair of twisted glasses from her apron pocket and put them on. They were far too small for her enormous face. She plucked a handwritten note from under a magnet on the refrigerator. Then she leaned against the counter and began to read aloud.
“Dear Harold. The basement is all yours, where you can stay until you rot, for all I care, but the bedroom is now all mine.” Polly smirked.
“That’s it? That’s all it says?”
“Well, there’s somethin’ ‘bout . . .‘the best I ever had.’ Oh, an’ it say, ‘Once you go fungus, you never go back.’
“Here ya go.” Polly slid a cup of coffee onto the table. The floor creaked under her weight.
“So, you hang out mostly in the basement?”
“Yeah. Pretty much.”
Harold’s overwhelmed mind began to race. He thought of all the rich loam in his basement and all the little Morels, Shiitakes, Porcinis, Portabellos and Creminis he had nurtured . . . and of his wife who was now, apparently, in the bedroom doing who-knows-what with the life-sized and human shaped mushroom he’d created for the purpose of scaring her to death.
He put his fork down and looked away from the distasteful looking food on his plate. Things were getting complicated. How did this happen? He would have to make a new plan. He thought the old one was perfect, but it seemed there is no such thing as the perfect crime. Now, with this impossible Polly person . . .
“So, Miss, ah . . . Polly . . .” Harold began. Polly polished off a Mars bar and absent-mindedly licked her forefinger and thumb.
“I think I may have to take you into my confidence.” Polly’s curiosity was peaked. One eyebrow crept up an inch on her broad face.
“Yes, Mizah ‘ O’?”
“I think I WILL take you into my confidence. My wife is a very rich woman," Harold began.
“We live modestly in this dumpy little house, but her family left her a great deal of money. We don’t have anything in common and my life has been reduced to my only source of enjoyment, raising prize mushrooms. If we divorce, I get nothing. Nothing! What do you think of that?”
Polly’s other eyebrow crept up so that it was level with the first one. To anyone watching, the effect was a little frightening.
“May ah sits mah-sef down, Suh?” Harold motioned to the chair across from him and wondered, fleetingly, whether it would support her weight. A great deal of Polly spilled over each side of the chair while some of her generous rear end curled around its back. Polly leaned as far forward as the table would allow.
She reached out and grasped one of Harold’s hands in both of hers, pressing it to her enormous bosom where it was swallowed up by her green, uniform-cloaked flesh.
With his hand buried deep between Polly’s breasts, her fleshy body seemed rather appealing. Perhaps it was her musky perfume that filtered into his nostrils reminding him of his formerly all-consuming mushroom obsession. Polly’s eyebrows had stayed elevated. Harold’s eyebrows rose to mirror hers. For what seemed like a long time, neither of them made a sound. Finally Polly spoke.
“You say, ‘She rich’ and if you wuz to gets yo-sef a dee-vorce you gets nothin’?” She paused, then continued in a throaty whisper.
“Mizah O, may ah call you Harold?” He nodded. Polly lowered her voice even more.
“Ah thinks, Harold . . . ah thinks that . . . yo’ wife . . . she need to have an ax-see-dent.”
Her words hung in the air. The only sound was the pit . . .
pit . . . of the faucet dripping into the kitchen sink. He had to say something, but he couldn’t find the words. Something had to happen, and it did.
The telephone rang. It seemed to ring really loud. It rang and rang and rang and rang and rang like a child who would not stop nagging its mother. Harold tore his gaze away from Polly, got up and shambled across the linoleum to lift the receiver on the wall phone.
“Yes?” He listened as a woman on the other end began talking.
“I would like to speak with Mrs. Oberman right away. This is Grace Stenawick of Happy Housekeeping. Is Mrs. Oberman in?”
“I’m sorry to trouble you, it’s rather urgent. Is this Mr. Oberman?”
“We have a situation, Mr. Oberman. Our dispatcher sent a housekeeper out to your home today in response to your wife’s request. That is what we do, provide housekeeping help, you know. We just received a phone call from the police, actually, a detective from the Homicide Department, of all things. Apparently they are looking for a woman they claim is one of our service providers, Housekeeper Polly Madison. Mr. Oberman, the police say that, oh this is so difficult, that Polly is suspected of having ‘done away’ with a series of her female clients in several counties across the State. Is she there Mr. Oberman? Can you speak freely?”
“Oh, my! She is right there and you can’t speak freely?
“No. I mean, no, she, she . . . never showed up.”
“Never showed up?”
“That’s what I said. She never showed up . . .” Gently, Harold replaced the phone back in its cradle. Under his breath, he addressed the kitchen’s faded wallpaper.“. . . Might be, she skipped town.”
Harold’s hobby helped him avoid his wife. That hobby became useful when he decided to do away with her. It was only a matter of time before he put his plan into effect.