Creative Writing Wednesday: “Down and Out in the Mushroom Kingdom”

Posted: January 25, 2012 in Creative Writing Wednesday
Tags: , , , ,

¡Feliz miércoles a todos!

So, this week’s edition of Creative Writing Wednesday is… well… it’s a story. The first story I’ve put on Axolotl Ceviche.

You have to understand: this enfrightens me. I’ve put up my dumb little poems, which is all well and good, I guess. But I don’t think of myself as a poet. I do write poetry, true, but I’m not primarily a poet. I am a writer of stories. And honestly, I just see my poetry as kind of disposable. It’s all right, I guess, but it’s not my goal to become a poet. Whereas one day, I want to be able to go into a bookstore and buy a novel with my name on the cover.

So I’m a little nervous sharing a story here on Axolotl Ceviche. Writing is what I want to do. Storytelling is almost all I think about.

This story, which I call “Down and Out in the Mushroom Kingdom”, is interesting because it’s a case of the title dictating what happens in the story rather than the other way around. For those of you who don’t know, I’m terrible at titles. I’d love to be able to write a story with an awesome title like “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” or “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death”. But I just can’t come up with titles.

This title itself came to me as I was sitting on the couch over winter break, watching my little brother, German brother, and brother’s girlfriend playing New Super Mario Bros Wii. I was reading Cory Doctorow’s novel Little Brother at the time, and one of Doctorow’s other novels is entitled Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Since I’m that kind of a person, I got the idea for a story with a similar title: a Mario-related story called “Down and Out in the Mushroom Kingdom”.

What can I say? My mind, she works in the strange-a ways.

So I had a title. Great. What I didn’t have was a story. So I thought about it, and so I decided to write about the Mario series from Luigi’s perspective.

Luigi has always been a fascinating character to me. He’s bigger than Mario, despite being younger, and he’s stronger and faster, with better jumping capabilities. Despite this, he’s constantly in Mario’s shadow. Yes, I understand that in many of the Mario RPGs, Luigi is hardly hero-type material. He’s a coward, essentially– scared of his own shadow.

But the games are usually from Mario’s perspective.

What if Mario is an unreliable narrator?

So that’s what happened. I had my title and my story. And because of this, I wrote this little story of sibling rivalry, packing in references to both the Mario series and other video games.

Now, an interesting thing happened when I was revising this story. Since I revise in an old-fashioned way, with red pen and a printout of the story I’m working on, other people could see that I was working on something. So they would ask me what it was, and so I said, “It’s a story set from the perspective of Luigi.”

“Oh,” they’d say. “So you’re writing fanfiction?”

“No,” I’d reply. “It’s really more of a deep, introspective look into sibling rivalry and the harshness of depression, a story about first loves and lost opportunities from the perspective of characters who aren’t actually named, but have some similarities between Mario and Luigi, and it’s kind of a…”

But I wouldn’t get to finish, because my listener had fallen asleep.

Actually, I was a little embarrassed by the idea of writing fanfic. It’s kind of an unsavory sort of genre, the kind that lurks in dark places on the internet. Fanfic, in literary terms, is kind of the mold that grows in the crevices of your refrigerator.

Nevertheless, it’s a genre. And I have always been a firm champion of the idea that there are no bad genres– just bad stories.

So I owned up to it.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s Mario fanfiction.”

…Anything else…?

Oh, yeah. Sibling rivalry.

My relationship with my brother has been… shall we say… rocky, over the years. It wasn’t until I went off to college that we started repairing the decade-long differences between us, and now we’re kind of friends. The relationship between Mario and Luigi depicted in this story isn’t exactly what my relationship with my brother was like, but still, it was pretty bad, honestly. Now I look back at the way I treated Calum and I wince.

So yeah. That’s the introduction to “Down and Out in the Mushroom Kingdom”. Hope you enjoy it. Try to find all the references I crammed in there. They are there, hidden like raisins in a cookie.

~ Ian

 

Down and Out in the Mushroom Kingdom

by Ian P. Johnson

There’s nothing in the house again. There never is anything on Saturdays– my brother never goes to the store on weekends, and I just can’t be bothered. I am hungry though, and I don’t feel like calling out for pizza or gukbap or anything, and I don’t want to leave the house. So I sift through the cupboards, my mind a million miles away, looking for something to eat.

Half a block of cheddar cheese… oh, wait– it’s got mold on it. Throw it in the trash, go through the fridge again. Sigh. Mayonnaise, horseradish, a jar of congealed, rock-hard ketchup… if I had any bread or meat, I’d be able to make a sandwich. A tomato, a jar of capers, a quarter-full thing of spaghetti sauce… Nothing. Niente. Zip.

I go over to the cupboards and look through.

Hold on. We do have bread. It’s the ass-end of some sort of hippie whole-grain stuff, and there are spots on it that don’t look like sesame seeds. Throw it out. A box of baking soda– why do we have baking soda? Neither of us bake.

A few jars of spices: nutmeg, cardamom, allspice, cinnamon, turmeric– good if you’re making curry, bad if you want to eat anything with some substance. A box of elbow macaroni. Finally. Something good.

Oh wait. It’s empty.

Shit.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see it. It’s partially hidden behind a clutter of dirty dishes on the counter, but it’s still there: a half-eaten cake, chocolate with pink-and-white frosting. It looks good, and there’s nothing else. So I cut myself a slice.

The cake is great, delicious and moist. I’m halfway through it when I notice a folded note next to the cake on the counter. I don’t want to read it. No good will come of it. I really should leave it alone.

I stand up, pick the note up, unfold it.

Then I start to read…

Beloved: 

My heart aches for you, and the fire within me burns to have you hold me, to feel your kisses on all parts of my body. I made this for you: a cake, made from the finest mushrooms. I hope it brings you pleasure, as you bring pleasure to me. 

When can I see you again? I miss you.

Sincerely, 

Her Grace, the Princess Toadstool of the Mushroom Kingdom

My eyes go cloudy, stinging with tears. I crumple the note up, and with a scream, throw the cake, plate and all, across the room. Splat– it hits the wall and bursts into a pink-and-brown supernova. The sound of breaking porcelain echoes across the room. Cake and frosting drip down onto the floor, staining the walls, oozing like a bleeding heart.

I hang my head and cry.

# # #

I’ve always lived in my older brother’s shadow.

Not literally, of course. I’m tall and thin; he’s short and fat. But somehow, when we were growing up in Brooklyn, he got more attention. My big brother was outgoing, pugnacious, and delightfully crusty even from a young age. I was painfully shy, an awkward young man, all knees and elbows.

We were different. So very different.

When I was a child, my big brother had more friends. All the teachers and neighborhood parents loved him. They thought he was great: so charming, so funny, so good with other children.

Nobody knew that my first memory was of him thrusting my head underwater, into the toilet bowl, and flushing the toilet again and again, until the water rushed up my nostrils and into my lungs and I felt that burning sensation deep within me, help help I’m drowning, until he pulled me out, toilet water and tears covering my face.

Nobody knew about the time we went off exploring a drainage pipe when he was twelve and I was ten, the time he burned me with a cigarette, poking me in the nipple with a tiny thousand-degree flame, burning a hole through my t-shirt and leaving a small, warped scar on the edge of my areola.

When we were in high school, my brother and I were on the track team together. I was a freshman, he was a junior. I had left gawky childhood and reached a point where my long knobby legs and folding-chair frame were an advantage, and not an embarassment. I was better than him at track: I could run faster, I could jump higher, I could do all the events better than he did.

It didn’t matter. He got all the attention. He got the acclaim. I was a record holder, and he rarely qualified for finals. But it didn’t matter. Everyone saw him. They didn’t see me.

Golden child, short and fat, shining like a star in the New York sunlight.

There was a girl. There was always a girl, of course– my brother was a hit with the ladies. He’d go up to the most beautiful wild-haired long-leggity beauty at any party, they’d get to talking, and within ten minutes his hand would be up her skirt and his tongue would be down her throat.

But this girl was different. She was on the girl’s track team, and she never really looked twice at him, although he tried to romance her many times. Pauline– that was her name.

She was beautiful. Oh, they all were, back then, but she was different. Big, blue eyes; a pert button nose; a curled-up cupid’s bow mouth that lit up her face when she smiled. And her hair: long, feathery brown hair that flowed down her back, stopping just before the gently rounded buttocks that looked so good in her track shorts. I remember how it smelled– a smooth, sweet smell of strawberry-kiwi shampoo.

I think you can tell that I was in love with her. Or thought I was in love with her, anyway– I don’t think I quite knew what love was back then. I was young, and everything was new.

On a cloyingly humid Mid-Atlantic July day, when haze hung over the skyscrapers across the East River and the city ground to a halt, she came to my house.

She wore a yellow sundress. I can see her now, as clearly as if it were yesterday: tanned, freckled, her blue eyes wide and deep. Mascara ran down her cheeks. She’d been crying.

“Hey, Big L,” she said, and her voice shook. “Can I talk to you? Please, for a few minutes?”

There was a lump in my throat as big as a grapefruit. Somehow, I managed to swallow it.

“Uh, sure, Pauline,” I said. “You can come right in.”

We went up to my bedroom, and sat down on my bed. I was self-conscious of how embarassing my room was: the stack of Fantastic Four comics on my nightstand, the piles of stinking laundry strewn haphazardly all over the place, the crusty off-white stains on my sheets.

Pauline didn’t mind. We sat down on my bed, and she threw her arms around me. Her face was buried against my chest, and she made small, gasping sobs as she held me close. My heart pounded, and I was instantly conscious of a boner developing south of the Equator.

“Um… Pauline? Are you okay?”

She looked up at me, and her eyes were bright with tears. “Gary broke up with me!” she cried. “He was cheating on me the whole time I was going out with him!”

Gary was a senior I knew vaguely well. He was tall and dark haired, and wore aviator sunglasses. I thought he was a douchebag.

“I’m sorry,” I said. And I realized I meant it. I loved Pauline. I wanted her to be happy. If she was unhappy, then I felt bad. Never mind that she’d broken up with her long-term boyfriend, and I had the best chance of scoring with her that I ever possibly would. I felt bad.

“You’re the only one I could come to,” cried Pauline. “All the guys on the track team except you and your brother are assholes, and all my girlfriends are away on vacation. What am I going to do?” This last word was spoken in a high, plaintive wail that was like a straight shot to the chest.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, stroking her strawberry-kiwi hair gently. “You’ll find someone new. You’ll find someone better. You’ll be fine.”

“Do you really think so?” she asked.

“Yeah, I do,” I replied. “You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”

And then she was kissing me, before I even knew it, and it was perfect. There was nothing in the world but her: the smell of her shampoo; the taste of her piña colada lip gloss; the feeling of her tongue gently sliding against my teeth, the aching pain of my erection against my jeans.

It was heaven. It was bliss.

My hand was stroking her hair, that angel-soft mass of hair all the way down her back. I followed that hair, from the back of her head, tracing her shoulder blades and feeling her bra strap underneath her sundress, the soft cavern of the small of her back. I was inches away from touching her butt when a voice inside my head said, Take it slow. She’s too good to have all at once.

I pulled away, our lips disengaging with a smack! 

It was one of the worst mistakes that I ever made.

“Listen,” I said. “Do you want to get a Coke or something? There are some in the fridge downstairs…”

She sniffed. “Okay.”

I left the room, went downstairs, got a couple cans of Coke out from the fridge. Then I decided that it would be impolite to just bring Pauline a Coke in just a can, so I poured each Coke into its own glass, plunked in a few ice cubes, garnished the rim with a slice of lemon.

When I got back, my brother was sitting on the edge of my bed, pants down, legs apart. Pauline knelt on the floor, head between his legs.

My brother looked at me, and snapped, “What the fuck are you looking at, punk?”

Pauline looked up, startled. As she did, my brother’s cock popped out of my beloved’s mouth. I could see it clearly, every vein popping out like a bodybuilder’s muscles.

It’s ironic that my brother’s penis was just like my brother:

Short and fat.

# # #

Time passed. I graduated high school and did two years of community college. Eventually I got a job as a plumber, working for my brother.

I was still unable to escape my brother’s shadow.

I was a twenty-one-year-old loser. My hair was already starting to thin, and the raging case of acne that had dominated my face during my teens hadn’t subsided. I had a girlfriend for a couple of years, but she broke up with me. Apparently I was too “clingy”.

Time went by, and I grew more and more depressed.

There were points when I considered ending it all, jumping off one of New York’s many bridges, or throwing myself under a train– something like that. There was one point when I nearly did it.

I was working on a routine clogged drain in a small aparment of hipsters in Williamsburg. I was feeling crappy– another one of my girlfriends had left me, I was behind on my rent (always too high, even in Brooklyn), and my brother… well, he was being my brother. Times were hard at work. Money wasn’t flowing in as fast as he would have liked– and when money was tight, my brother was angry.

When I finished unblocking the toilet, I looked down into it, the shit-stained porcelain bowl looking like a baleful eye, watching me, judging me.

It was just like my first memory: my brother, holding my head underwater, my lungs screaming for breath, drowning, drowning…

I might have been struck by the symmetry of it all. Or maybe it was just the first way out that presented itself.

I don’t know.

I stuck my face down into the toilet bowl, closed my eyes, and flushed…

…and then I was somewhere else.

I though I was dreaming, or crazy, or dead. But then I knew, somehow, that it was real.

I was in a green land, a beautiful land, a place where mushrooms stretched towards the sky, where the sun shone brighter and purer than in my world, in Brooklyn. Everything was suffused with a golden light, and flakes of sunlight seemed to fall from the sky.

I’d crossed a threshold into a perfect world.

When I found my way back to reality, back to Brooklyn, it was nighttime.

I saw my brother the next day, and he was pissed.

“Where the fuck have you been, you piece of shit?” he shouted. I could see the veins bulging in his bulbous nose. Somehow, over the years, my brother had gotten fatter and uglier– yet women seemed to flock to him even to this day.

“Bro,” I said, “you aren’t gonna believe where I’ve been.”

“Yeah? Has your head been up your ass? Wouldn’t be the first time. You dumb fucker, if you ever pull something like that again– I’ll fire you, yahearme? I don’t care if you’re my brother or not, I’ll throw you out on the street, you stupid wop, I’ll–”

“Shut up,” I snapped.

To my shock, my brother was silent. I don’t think anyone– not even my parents– had ever spoken to him like that.

“Come with me,” I said. “I have to show you something.”

We returned to the hipsters’ apartment in Williamsburg, and together we went down the drain into the green land.

My brother was speechless. Didn’t even say a word. He stared around himself in wonder, not believing if what he saw was real or the delusion of a stressed and overworked brain. But as time went on, he began to smile.

I’d never seen him smile quite like that. It was like he was a happy, golden child again.

We made our way through the land of mushrooms and came to a candy-colored castle, standing tall and proud in the middle of the green valley. We knocked on the door, and gained admittance, finally coming to a grand throne room, and we saw…

her

I don’t know exactly how to describe her. I could drown you all in random adjectives and  purple prose. I could use clichéd similes… her hair was like a river of gold; her eyes like deep, sparkling pools of water; her body was like a supple willow tree; her voice was like music and laughter; things like that.

But I can’t think of a way to descibe her without making it all sound like some dumb poem.

Suffice to say: she was beautiful, and I fell for her the first moment I saw her.

Who are you? she said, in her indescribable voice. I have not seen your kind in the kingdom.

I was speechless, so my brother spoke up. “We’re plumbers. From Brooklyn, New York. You ever heard of it?”

No, she said. There are legends, though… legends of a world above our own, a dark and dirty place of soot and smoke, bright lights and loud noises. But they are just myths.

“Well, they ain’t myths,” my brother said. “We’re from there.” And he told the woman our names. She smiled.

This is passing strange, the woman said. I know you now, so you must know my name. I am Princess Toadstool of the Mushroom Kingdom. This is my palace. I hope that you will stay awhile. I would like to hear you speak of this land above. I always had a taste for stories.

She clapped her hands, and servants came– strange-looking people, short little men with mushroom-cap heads as big as their bodies. They looked over us curiously, and bowed to the Princess.

Bring food and drink for our guests, Princess Toadstool said. I am sure they are hungry and thirsty.

It seemed like the majority of the food was mushrooms, and mushroom-like things, and other fungi. I always enjoyed mushroom pizza, but I’d never really liked mushrooms: they were too rubbery and tasteless for me. But the mushrooms that Princess Toadstool served were perfect. There were mushrooms that tasted like steak, and some that tasted like bacon, and some that tasted like exotic tropical fruit, and some that tasted like freshly-baked bread… and all of them were delicious.

For dessert we ate chocolate truffles (that is, actual truffles, made from chocolate, that came out of the ground) and drank sweet liqueurs that had a slight hint of fungus.

Now tell me, guests, said Princess Toadstool, once our meal was done, what is your country like? Why have you come here, to the Mushroom Kingdom?

I wanted to speak– so badly. But my brother, ever the sweet talker, said, “Why, to meet you, to behold your beauty, which is legend in our country.”

I couldn’t believe it. My brother was speaking like he’d come out of some terrible fantasy novel. But Princess Toadstool smiled. You are smooth of speech, foreigner, she said. I have half a mind to take you to my bed.

My brother glanced at me and gave me the biggest shit-eating grin of his life. Then he turned to the princess and replied, “Let’s not waste a good thing. Not go too fast, y’know?”

My jaw almost dropped. I’d never seen my brother pass up an offer of sex before. But apparently Princess Toadstool wasn’t just some quick fuck to him– she was royalty, she was a conquest, in a way no other girl was to him– not Pauline, not anyone else.

I understand. She clapped her small, white-gloved hands again. Toadsworth?

A mushroom-headed person with a long white beard entered. I could tell at once that he was important. Your Majesty, he said, bowing low.

Show these two outlanders to their rooms, Princess Toadstool said. I want them to have the most spacious quarters in the castle.

At once, ma’am, he said.

We were led by a couple of mushroom people to our rooms– my brother in one room, myself in another. I lay down on the bed as night fell over the Mushroom Kingdom, my thoughts twisting and turning as I jerked off, imagining a vividly beautiful girl whose face changed and twisted as I fumbled with myself, flickering between Pauline and the Princess, Pauline and the Princess, until I drifted off to sleep, my brain seething with lust and jealousy.

That night, we were visited by darkness and flame.

I awoke to hear the castle in an uproar. Stepping out into the hallway, I saw mushroom-headed soldiers, spears and swords in hand, fighting turtles who stood on their feet. The whole building was burning. Somewhere in the clamor, I heard Toadsworth, the long-bearded mushroom man, shouting in the darkness: The Princess! She’s been taken!

I rushed to the balcony, and looked out over the green valley to see a dragon with a spiked turtle shell flying off, Princess Toadstool in its clutches.

There isn’t much to say after that.

My brother and I chased after that dragon. We ran and ran, fighting whatever came against us, triumphing in battle. We crossed the whole of the Mushroom Kingdom, and discovered that it was far larger than we’d dared imagine. The Mushroom Kingdom spanned continents, containing vast parched deserts, frozen wastelands, and tropical seas. We became heroes, my brother and I, our names whispered throughout the cities and villages of the kingdom as legend.

Eventually we came to a castle surrounded by lava in the darkest part of the Mushroom Kingdom, and we fought the dragon. When it had weakened enough, I dealt the final blow, smashing in its hideous skull, my hands flowing with its blood.

Then I felt a crack on the back of my head, and I fell unconscious.

When I awoke, I saw my brother kissing Princess Toadstool, the woman who I’d searched for so long, she tilting her face down to touch her soft, pink lips to his fat, hairy ones.

I closed my eyes. There was nothing else I could do.

# # #

After I throw the cake against the wall, I feel pretty shitty. Worse than shitty, actually– I’m completely depressed. Everything seems to go gray in my vision. The sounds of cars on the street have faded out, becoming nothing more than a whisper in my ears. I’d go out and get drunk, but I don’t want to move. There’s no alcohol in the house. I slip my hand into my pocket.

I have to get out.

Fumbling through the various pieces of debris and detritis in the front pocket of my overalls, my hand closes around a small cube, about two inches on a side. I pull it out. It’s a little yellow box, a question mark on its front, nothing more, nothing less. I smash the box with my fist, and out pops a mushroom: white-spotted, stalk the color of Caucasian flesh, two wide, blinking eyes just below its portruding cap. They widen in fear as I bring the mushroom up to my mouth, taste it gently with my tongue, suck lightly on its flesh, as soft and gentle as a kiss. Then I open wide, and in goes the mushroom.

I chew and swallow. It has a foul taste, but I choke it down.

And then…

And then… 

I’m suddenly ten feet tall, standing high above the earth. The ground shakes beneath my feet as I leap, crushing everything before me beneath my massive boots. I am a giant, a monster, a hero, a god. I am completely invincible, and I cannot be stopped. Nothing can get in my way. Nothing can bring me down. I am big enough to laugh in my brother’s face, to stomp him into a bleeding red paste. I see his ugly face before me, mustache like a caterpillar on his upper lip, and it is afraid. 

Nothing can hurt me, or beat me, or break my heart ever again. 

Nothing ever, forever. 

(rough draft completed January 5, 2012, at 6:06 PM by Ian P. Johnson)

(final draft completed January 20, 2012, at 4:09 PM by Ian P. Johnson)

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Comments
  1. Will Forest says:

    I looked at it because it was yours, but I read more of it because it was interesting and entertaining. I hope someday I’ll be able to go into a bookstore and have you sign my copy….

    Your February 5 post reminded me of a wonderful terrible science fiction short story from probably the 1950s that I think (knowing something, but only something, of your tastes) you might really like a lot. So, if you can find a story called It’s a ˆGoodˆ Life (italicized just like your entry), check it out and tell me what you think.

    Keep it up!

    Will

    • Ian Johnson says:

      What? Interesting and entertaining?

      I’M MAKING A NOTE HERE: HUGE SUCCESS.

      (There’s another video game reference for y’all…)

      In any case, I don’t think that this story will ever be published in a book. Not that I don’t think it’s good, but it’s fanfiction. And I’m aware that Nintendo is VERY protective of its IP. So, yeah, it’s okay to publish this story on my lame blog. But to have it published in a book… well… that might be a problem.

      I’ll be only too glad to sign a book for you one day. I just need to write one…

  2. […] in the first draft of “Down and Out in the Mushroom Kingdom”, I had little humorous ads that went between the four main sections of the story, as a way of […]

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