Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Chapter 1: Dr. McHaggerty and the Four Dead Professors ROUGH DRAFT, totally unedited

Death Angel, a mycology mystery
by Mary Stebbins Taitt

VERY ROUGH FIRST Draft, totally unedited! This is from yesterday, day 1 of NaNoWriMo. I have not corrected even spelling or grammar errors yet. The reason why is, I haven't had time and I'm supposed to write another chapter today. I haven't started on that and I am PACKING FOR A TRIP--leaving tomorrow for Syracuse, NY.

Chapter 1: Dr. McHaggerty and the Four Dead Professors

        “Four world-renowned mycology professors at Cornell died of mushroom poisoning after a joint collecting trip on a backpacking expedition,” Dr. Colin McHaggerty said, in booming voice, looking out over the faces in the auditorium.  On two of the three screens behind him, images of the Grinning Grim Reaper holding glowing white mushrooms appeared. In the center screen was an enlargement of a newspaper article with the headline, “Four Cornell Mycology Professors Die of Mushroom Poisoning.”  Eerie flog drifted out onto the stage, curling, wafting and thickening.
        McHaggerty paused dramatically.  He wore black pants, a black shirt, and a black tie with white mushrooms on it, and a black cape fluttered lightly, lifting high behind him in an unseen breeze.  His thick, grizzled and somewhat wild red hair and beard made a kind of red-gold halo around his face.  The already low lights in the auditorium dimmed to near darkness and a light came up under McHaggerty’s face, shadowing the eyes making it look skeletal. A groan rose from the students in the audience, almost a shriek.
        “Apparently,” McHaggerty said, “many different kinds of mushrooms were collected that day.”  He paused again, turning his face from left to right.  The students could no longer see his eyes, which were deep in shadow as if there were only empty sockets.  “Including Amanita phalloides, the Destroying Angel!” He thundered.  Photographs of the destroying angel mushroom, glowing white against a background, now appeared on the screen.
        There was another long pause and then the lights came up to full brightness and the light under McHaggerty’s face disappeared.  Two warm yellow spotlights appeared on his face from above.  
        “Some mushrooms, “ Dr. McHaggerty, said, smiling widely, “are delicious and wonderfully edible.”  On the screens to the left and right appeared photos of edible mushrooms, the common garden mushroom, morels, shaggy manes, chicken of the woods.  Each was labeled with the common and Latin names.  In the center pane was a photograph of a plate of cooked mushrooms, garnished with parsley and set on a red and white checked tablecloth.
        “Some mushrooms,” McHaggerty said, and the lights dimmed to half-brightness, “while not poisonous, are distinctly unpalatable or inedible.” More labeled photos appeared.
        “And some mushrooms,” McHaggerty continued, as the lights fell to darkness again and the light under his face came up, “are deadly poisonous.”  The screens to the left and right showed the destroying angel, the death cap, the fly agaric and other deadly mushrooms.  The Grim Reaper came up on the center, holding white mushrooms in his right hand and the limp body of a deceased victim over his left arm.
        McHaggerty paused again.  The lights slowly came back up, and the chin light faded away and he pulled on a pair of thin beige rubber gloves.  From a shelf in the podium, he took a handful of white mushrooms.  The three screens behind him showed a close-up of his face and gloved hands, holding the mushrooms.
        Amanita phalloides,” he said, “is so poisonous that even touching it can be dangerous.  Some of the toxins can be transferred to the skin, and from the skin to the mouth or to the food you are going to eat.”  Behind him, the three images each show a different photograph of Amanita phalloides, labeled with common names, and the Latin name.  “Amanita phalloides is a common mushroom and can be found in woods, fields and in your own backyard.”
        Again, Dr. McHaggerty paused dramatically.  Then he walked out from behind the lectern, strode to the edge of the stage, and leaned out so far over the edge toward the audience that it seemed he might tumble off the stage into the laps of the students in the front row.  He was still holding the Amanita phalloides in his right hand, gesticulating with it, and the closest students leaned visibly away from him.  Their faces looked stricken.  Rune, sitting onstage with the other teaching assistants, elbowed Bart on one side and Cassie on the other and they all snickered and giggled. covering their mouths with their hands.  No one was looking toward them.  All eyes were riveted on Dr. McHaggerty.  It was the first day of classes at the beginning of the semester in September.  The students, looking amazingly young, had never seen McHaggerty in action.  They’d heard through the grapevine, as students always did, that the class was good, but they hadn’t known just how good.
        “Can anyone tell me,” McHaggerty asked, “how those four doomed professors could have avoided dying of mushroom poisoning?”
        A hand shot up, front row center.  “Aaron Weiner,” Rune whispered to Cassie.  Cassie nodded.  They had received sheets and sheets and sheets of printouts of the pictures of the kids in the Mycology 103 class and had made flashcards from the pictures and spent the last week trying to learn the names of the kids.
        “Yes, Mr. Weiner?” McHaggerty asked.  Larry appeared from the side entrance and ran over to the kid, who was shrinking in his seat, and shoved a microphone in his face.
The kid trembled slightly, then seemed to pull himself together, sat up straight, thrust out his chin, and spoke in a clear if soft voice, “The safest thing is to not eat mushrooms at all, or at least, not wild mushrooms.”
The audience roared.
Dr. McHaggerty held up his left hand.  “Please,” he said, quietly, but in a voice that carried throughout the auditorium, “be respectful.”  The laughing stopped instantly.
McHaggerty leaned toward Aaron Weiner and said, “Mr. Weiner, that is an excellent answer, and thank you for it.  One certain way to avoid mushroom poisoning is to not eat mushrooms.”  He spoke the last three words with great conviction and articulation.  “Eating store-bought mushrooms, while not 100% safe, is probably 99 and 42/100ths percent safe.”
The audience laughed.  Rune wondered if anyone is the class knew that McHaggerty had made an allusion to an old ivory soap commercial that said that ivory soap was 99 and 42/100th percent pure.  She hadn’t known it herself until Larry had told them in the session yesterday where they went over the details of the first lecture.  Larry was the audiovisuals man and all around boy Friday for Dr. McHaggerty and the whole biology department at ESF.  He’d been here at the College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry for twelve years, and he knew the scoop about almost everything, or so it seemed to Rune.

               A girl in blond pigtails two kids down from Aaron Weiner in the front row raised her hand. "Melanie Sullivan," Peter Schilja, another of the TAs, whispered to Bart, and Bart gave him a thumbs up. I agredded, smiling at Peter when he looked down the row at me.  Peter, at the beginning of our training week, instructing us how to pronounce his difficult name:  “SHEEL-yih,” he repeated, over and over, every time one of us mistakenly said Shil-JA.  “SHEEL-yih,” he’d say, gently at first, and then a little more assertively.  Angela kept saying it wrong longer than the rest of us, and got red-faced angry when Peter (“Never Pete!”) kept correcting her.
            Five hundred thirty-seven students from every level of the College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry, often called ESF, Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College signed up for the class.  McHaggerty’s popularity grew every year.  Rune had thought learning the names of all the students from their photos before class even started was insane, but McHaggerty had insisted, and they had studied those faces day and night.  Rune studied Melanie Sullivan.  She had a sweet face, rosy cheeks, dimples, and those thick blond braids.  Rune thought that probably at most colleges the girls would not be wearing braids, but here at stumpy school, it was pretty common.  Braids, work boots, flannel shirts with t-shirts underneath, that was the uniform most of the kids wore, and with good reason.  They spent a lot of time hiking through the woods, measuring trees, collecting flowers, taking mushroom spore samples.  
            "Yes, Miss Sullivan," McHaggerty said, inclining his head toward her and smiling.  Larry approached her with the microphone. The girl spoke clearly in an almost childish voice that amplified rang sweetly in the large room like a small bell
            "If you learn your mushrooms one at a time and stick with ones you know are safe, you should be okay.  My grandmother who came over from Italy taught me to collect field mushrooms.  I've been doing it all my life, and we've never gotten sick."
            Rune looked at the girl in wonderment.  She looked Swedish, not Italian, with her blond hair and blue eyes.
            "Very good, Miss Sullivan.  Tell me, how do you know which one so pick?"
            Grandma taught me to pick the white mushrooms with pink or brown gills underneath.  She said never pink any that were white underneath, and not to pick them if you couldn't see the gills.  Also, they have a certain shape and texture.  I've seen death angels and they don't look the same.  They are more delicate looking.  But I tried to show my friend Georgia and she couldn't see the difference, so I guess it's sort of subtle.  Anyway, I'd never go by shape alone, but I find myself not even looking underneath some of them because I know right away they are wrong."
            Rune and Cassie nodded their heads to each other and smiled.  Melanie Sullivan was smart, articulate and correct.
            "Very good, Miss Sullivan, excellent," McHaggerty said, smiling broadly.  Are you saying that you only collect one kind of mushroom?"
            "No, not exactly.  That was the one kind I learned at first.  But I found out from someone else that a mushroom most people call Toadstools, one that often grows in fairy ring and has a shape like a hat, sort of, and is tan colored and small is also edible.  And morels.  I found some of those, looked them up, learned that they were edible and tasty, have been collecting them ever since."
            "Do you collect them together?" asked McHaggerty.
            "No, never.  I read somewhere, I forget where, that it is a bad idea for beginners to collect more than one kind of mushroom at a time."  A kind of collective sigh of approval went up from the TAs and was echoed by some of students. Everyone recognized a good answer
            "You've just hot the nail on the head, Miss Sullivan.  Larry, give this girl a get out of jail free card."  Larry took two cards out of his pocket and handed them to Melanie.  One was a duplicate of the monopoly card, which said, on one side, "Get out of Jail free."  That card could be used in the future to drop a bad grade or be excused from a quiz or lab report.  The other card was a fake dollar bill the size of a credit card good for a dollar at Dollar Dooley's.  Everyone knew that a Dollar Dooley Card was good for a coffee, Tea, hot chocolate or scone, or one of the biggest fattest cookies in town.  Melanie slipped the cards into the chest pocket of her red and black hunter-plaid flannel with the ragged cut-off sleeves.
            "The way to avoid mushroom poisoning," McHaggerty reiterated with a flourish, stepping back behind the podium, as Melanie's face flashed across all three screens, is to learn one safe mushroom at a time and collect one safe mushroom at a time, and look at each one carefully as you collect it, as you clean it, and again, as you cut it up for cooking.  An image appeared on the left screen of Rune, with a field guide in one hand and a hand lens in the other, comparing a mushroom to its image in the field guide.  On the middle screen, an image came up of Bart carefully cleaning mushrooms on a kitchen counter with a field guide propped in a cookbook holder, holding a mushroom up to the book.  The right screen showed Cassie cutting mushrooms, removing the dirty parts at the bottom, and comparing her mushroom to the field guide.
            A second set of three images showed the same sequence, only with Angel, Eliza and Peter as models.  There were six TAs, and each was triple-checking to be sure the mushrooms were safe.  They all ate the mushrooms after the photo shoot and none of them had gotten sick.  Not yet anyway.  Thinking of the four Cornell professors, all of whom were renowned in their field, dying after consuming their own collected mushrooms, Rune felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up and a shiver coursed down her spine.


John said...

Excellent Mary

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

Thanks, John. I just reread it, sitting at a table in the Barnes and Novble Cafe in Syracuse.

bluerose said...

You've caught my interest... well done! You only have to have a rough draft to complete the challange, right?

Hope you were able to work on the next chapter. Have a safe trip!