Waves of dry rain pinged off the windshield as the old Caddy careened through the mushroom forest. Dean maxed the wipers, clearing the tiny spores. The road appeared in snapshots, the way a strobe light in a dancehall captures shifting spastic poses. I cursed Dean, expecting each blade-swipe to reveal the object of our deaths – a giant mushroom in our path an instant before we’d plunge into its meaty stalk.
“Howee!” Dean said. His forearm rested at noon on the wheel, and his eyes fixed on the strobing view of the road.
We zoomed past phallic stalks rising thirty or forty feet with bulbous caps pointed skyward as if to mate with the stars. Unable to reach the heavens, they spilled their seed on our forty-year-old Cadillac.
“C’mon, put the car on auto.”
Dean ignored me. He put his finger to his lips and blew a kiss to the Caddy’s flying goddess hood ornament that led our way through the brown mist. He drove with a Zen-like grace, arcing the wheel between eleven and one to track the centerline. As the wiper cleared the view, I saw a wide-topped mushroom maybe ten feet tall had fallen across the road, looking like a discarded umbrella. I clutched the seat certain we’d plunge into the meaty stipe. But Dean dropped our cruising height of two yards down to two inches and with a deft yaw, pitch, and roll, we flew beneath the angled stalk. I whipped my head around in time to see the Caddy’s left rear fin nick the gills beneath the fallen cap. Our hover-skirt scraped the dirt and left a dust-devil spinning in our wake. When I looked forward again we had burst out of the forest and onto the sunny plains.
“Mushrooms took over the world.” I half-joked, hoping to ignite Dean into riffing psychotic fungal connections for the next five hundred miles. Screw the busted radio.
“You are so right, my man. The venerable mushroom is the oldest of organisms. The stoic gods of the underworld, poking their fleshy protuberances through the Earth like they’d caught the goddess Gaia herself in a back-ended encounter.” His hands flew off the wheel to mime a divinely carnal event.
Another forest appeared on the horizon. Above the mushroom caps, great tree trunks spread a canopy of moisture and shade. The leafy tufts tapped sunlight for energy, pulling carbohydrates down their trunks into the underground. Mycelia, the fungal roots, sucked on the trees as if drinking from a cow’s teat.
Tanker trucks pumped nitrogen and phosphorous into the soil. Workers drove bladed machines into the forest, hacking down swaths of the towering crops. Dean bobbed his head to the rhythm of the slicing and pounding machines.
“Ho ho! Look at those choppers chop. I worked a cutter outside Amarillo last year. We’d mush a four-story shroom in under an hour. More food in one stalk than a hundred acres of corn. Maybe a thousand. Hack hack hack and we fed the world.”
A starship’s white contrail divided the blue sky. Dean quieted down for only a few seconds to track its progress. “I’d have worked that farm a thousand years if they let me. Those towers of food were the raw pinnacle of man’s achievements. No roll of the genetic dice. We spit in Darwin’s eye and sculpted lifeforms in the image of our dreams.”
“Let’s go back, and we’ll work that farm together.” I thought he’d never return and had only needled him to spice up the ride. Dean had fallen for a young mush-cutter there named Kumari. He’d left that farm hopping and singing, running naked through the tall grass while her cuckolded husband chased him with a coil-gun.
“Ah, to see Kumari one more time, that poor oppressed angel. I swear in the throes of love she cocooned me in burning gossamer wings.” The taut skin over Dean’s bony face seemed to tighten further. His eyes narrowed into long rectangles, and I knew we were in for trouble.
He pulled on the wheel, forcing the nose of the Cadillac to the sky. The hover skirts thrust us backward, driving the roof straight toward a hard impact with the road. Why did I open my trap about the damn farm? I cursed myself for getting us killed when – in an impossibly acrobatic maneuver – Dean rolled the Caddy upright, level, and with the flying goddess pointed back toward Amarillo. He gazed out at the road as if nothing had happened, his relaxed arm resting once again at noon on the wheel.
We retraced the low green crops and tall taupe mushroom forests of America’s heartland. Another starship crossed the sky. Like all others, they launched on one-way trips from Spaceport America – a city of rockets in the Jornada del Muerto desert basin in New Mexico. Each filled with a thousand colonauts spreading humanity across the cosmos.
“That’s the new road, you see,” Dean said. “You and me, we bounce off coasts and borders like pachinko balls. Those starships, they just fly straight.
I pointed at the starship. “They’ll all die in space. If they’re lucky, their great-grandkids will land on some harsh, primitive rock.”
“The journey’s the destination,” Dean said, and the familiar phrase took on a new twist for me.
At night we drove through Kansas City, past downtown’s continuously morphing buildings and into the soft underbelly of the Tenderloin district.
“Ho ho, there it is – Billy Stymer’s bar! I just about died my last time here.” Dean pointed to a ramshackle building with the word “drinks” hand-painted over the door. “Spent twenty-six hours drinking ale and eating ‘cybin with three sisters – each one prettier than the others.”
Dean told the Cadillac to park itself while I pushed through the heavy door. The wood floor reeked from a hundred years of spilled beer. Five barflies twisted their stooped necks to see who blew in while the bartender nodded off on a stool, grunting through a busted-up nose that twisted too far to the left. From the look of his cauliflower ears, I figured he’d been on the fight circuit. The wrassling cage in the back of the bar clinched it. Though instead of wrasslers, a four-piece juke-band waited on the stained mat for a paying customer. The scrawny frontman had a bass that looked to have real strings on it. What the hell, I tossed them a globo and told them to play some prole tunes.
Bass-man scratched his week-old beard. “You got a favorite?”
“What you like, I like better.” I tossed him another globo, feeling way overdue for a good time.
The drums pounded to an ancient savage rhythm. The frontman played the bass like a lead, spiriting the soul of the great Mingus. This would be a night – I could feel it.
The bar door burst open, framing Dean’s silhouette. His hair whipped in the wind, and he had the outlined battle-stance of a Spartan warrior. The band stopped playing, and the barflies straightened up as they turned to see. The bartender woke up, sensing the air had changed in the room. As he squinted to see details of the man in the door, Dean stepped inside.
Dean in all his detail looked even more frightening than his silhouette. Windblown hair, stretched sinews and psychotic eyes forced the barflies back in their chairs. Only the bartender leaned forward. Recognition spread across his face. “Hot damn, Dean, you know how to make an entrance.”
Dean cracked a grin as wide as Nebraska. “Billy, old boy, you owe me fifty globos.”
“The hell I do. I won that fight.”
Dean slapped the back of an old bearded barfly. “Then how about you buy these boys a drink, and we’ll call it even.”
The band started up again. Billy shook his head as he cracked beers for the whole joint. “You sure is something, Dean.”
Dean turned to me and said, “I toldja, didn’t I. Billy’s got the best honky-tonk in the Tenderloin,” and to Billy he said, “We’re cruising to Amarillo to see an adorable little mush-kitty. The kind of girl who can pulp a forty-footer on her own.”
“I don’t trust them giant toadstools. I don’t even trust the little ones.”
Dean leaned in – he loved a good conspiracy theory. “Afraid of the genetic engineering?”
“It’s bigger than that,” Billy said. “These mushrooms been around for four hundred million years – at least. That’s two thousand times as long as people.”
Dean hopped off his stool and shook my shoulders. “Think of the evolution, man. These beings watched animals climb out of the sea. They must know things. Hot damn, they had almost a half billion years to adapt to us.”
I saw it coming – the two of them would riff about evil mushroom monsters till the sun came up. I reached across the bar and poured myself a shot. The taste of rye blended with the aroma of spilled beer, and with the prole jam, and with the sound of Dean riffing a thousand connections around another man’s story. I drained the shot and poured another.
At midnight, Dean and Billy ran out back with a spade. I followed and so did the barflies. Even the band came out back. Billy polka-dotted the lawn with holes. Everywhere he dug they found mushroom roots, ultra-fine mycelial fuzz.
“It’s a damn network,” Billy said. “The plants and trees all talk to each other through the mycelia. They trade nutrients. It’s an underfoot city.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure. Fungi have their heads in the ground and their junk in the air. All those connections – neural networks more complex than our brains.”
By dawn they decided the mushrooms cultivated the plants. Then they figured the shrooms had bred humans as workers to farm for them. Laying crops and lawns and planting trees to provide precious carbs. All so they could spread their spores across the world.
The last remaining barfly said, “bah,” and crawled up in a corner to sleep off the beer.
“Billy Billy BILLY!,” Dean roared, and the barfly growled at the noise. “They’re smarter than us and we don’t even know they think.”
Billy nodded, happy that someone finally understood his insane theories. “Ya got it, Dean. Them smock-wearing scientists only get intelligence that looks like ours. Poppycock! Those hosers couldn’t fathom a different ilk of intelligence if it crawled up their asses.
“Hoowee, it’s been great seeing you, Billy.” Dean tipped up his glass and finished the last of his ninth beer. “Time to go find my mush-kitty.”
The Cadillac met us out front, and Dean pointed the flying goddess hood ornament toward Amarillo. We drove through seas of Kansas cornfields and towering mushroom rainforests. Dean gunned us over the Oklahoma hills into the hardscrabble Texas stovepipe. We finally stopped on a hill above a small white house on the grassland.
Dean pointed to a distant figure in a white dress. “I swear that’s my angel Kumari out front.”
She was too far to make out her face, but she had the moves of a ballerina. There couldn’t have been more than five girls in all of Texas who could move like that.
Dean leaned the car down the hill, and we coasted toward her no faster than a horse trot. She stopped and turned toward us, almost in slow motion. Her hand raised into a relaxed military salute to shield her eyes from the afternoon sun. As we neared, she took on that same look of growing recognition as I’d seen with Billy. Then, with a beaming smile, she projected an aura I’d never seen before. Earth angel, she lit our world.
As we pulled up to the house, Kumari said to Dean, “It took you long enough.”
Dean turned to me. “See, old boy? I never said a thing, and she just knew I’d come back for her.”
“The road,” she said. “Take me with you.”
Something seemed suspicious about the way she joined us as if she’d waited her whole life just for Dean and me to take her away.
Ignoring the car door, she climbed through Dean’s window and, after driving her knee into his crotch and bonking heads with me, she settled between us. That’s when her husband ran out with his coilgun raised. I could hear the metal slugs pounding the Caddy’s graphene body.
Dean ducked his head and nailed the accelerator. Even with 10 mm hunks of supersonic steel, Dean refused to let the car drive itself. We crashed into the house, shattering the living room window. Then he threw it in reverse just missing Kumari’s husband who dove for his life. Dean thrust us up to the Caddy’s max height of ten feet, and we were back on the road.
Kumari tossed her wedding ring out the window. She checked the chipped paint on her pinky nail and said, “I didn’t bring my polish.”
“Oh, no no no, this is a work of art.” Dean grabbed her finger and took his eyes from the road long enough to scrape a tangle of tree branches. He pulled out his penknife to carve the paint off the other nails in a matching pattern. I reached across Kumari to grab the wheel.
When Dean finished, he held up her hands. “No finer work of art could adorn you.”
He wrapped his arm around her. When he leaned in for the big smooch, Kumari thrust her thumb into his throat. Dean jumped off his seat and banged his head on the ceiling. He knocked into the arm I had on the wheel sending us bouncing off the ground.
Dean clutched his throat with one hand and wrestled the wheel back from chaos with the other. “Hoowee! By the fires of Etna, you’re the toughest farmer I ever met.”
“I came only for the road.” Kumari arched her back in the seat between us. Thighs like a deer, chest like a lion, she’d become the flying goddess incarnate. I’d let her punch her thumb through my trachea and clear out the back of my neck if she’d give me five seconds against her cotton lips.
“We go to New Mexico,” she said. “You know the place.”
“Jornada del Muerto,” Dean said with extreme reverence.
“Sure,” I said. “We’ll head for the spaceport. Take the high road from there.” Joining the colonauts seemed like a damn good idea with Kumari along for the ride. I’d have followed her to the ninth circle of Hell if she’d beckoned me and I’m sure Dean would have been dancing naked ten feet ahead of me.
That night, we slept with our bodies forming a triangle in the grass. Dean’s head by my feet and my nose an inch from Kumari’s perfect toes. Her feet smelled of earthy mushrooms. The scent of the gods.
We woke at dawn and silently piled into the Cadillac, compelled to reach the spaceport as quickly as possible.
“You know,” Kumari broke the silence, “there is a fungus that thrives in tropical forests but only at a certain height where the heat and humidity are just right.”
“Uh huh,” I said while sneaking a peek down her neckline. Dean smacked my thigh.
“The fungus has no legs to climb the trees. But ants have very good legs. So the fungus sticks to an ant and grows into its brain. Then the ant climbs purposefully to a leaf at a height the fungus enjoys and clamps down in a death grip on the leaf’s central vein. Eventually, the fungus kills the ant yet still those mandibles clutch that vein where the fungus has now migrated. That is how the fungus moves.”
I looked at Dean, and Dean looked out on the road. We didn’t scare easily, but Kumari’s story had frightened us. Still, we drove onward to the spaceport. Another starship launched, seemingly from over the next ridge. Kumari stared through its flaming plume with the gaze of a thousand lightyears.
A mushroom forest grew on the horizon’s edge. As we neared, the sun glinted off the tall stalks, and I realized I’d been mistaken. We’d come to the towering silver spaceships, each one outfitted for a thousand colonauts and destined for its own star.
Cars converged on the spaceport from all directions. When we parked, Kumari climbed over us and headed for one of the ships. The gritty desert wind blew through her hair, looking as if the flying goddess had climbed off the hood and guided us to the next phase of our destiny. Thousands of pioneer feet crunched the sand around us with the same determination as we had when following Kumari to one of the ships.
Workers in white coveralls loaded beds of loam into the ship’s bay. I thought of the mycelia Dean and Billy had dug behind the bar in Kansas City. Then I understood it all. Humans had never dominated the Earth. We’d been cultivated by the mushrooms for eons – usurping our legs, our opposable thumbs, our industrious minds. They’d engineered us for eons until we’d developed ships that would take them to the stars.
We followed Kumari to the cylindrical base of the nearest rocket. Surrounded by thousands of blank-eyed colonauts at the mouth of the ship, Dean said “Hoowee” in a soft flat tone.