Arnold and Mary: A Love Story
Arnold Knutson met his wife, the former Mary O’Boyle, at the Palmer House Hotel of Chicago, Illinois, on a hot August evening of the year Nineteen-hundred and twenty-two. He was a guest of the hotel, in town to convince the Chicago Grain Exchange to include mushroom futures among its tradable commodities. She was the waitress serving him in the hotel dining room.
“They’re too full of themselves even to listen to me!” Knutson complained to Mary the waitress, who had joined him at his table on his invitation. Knutson was slicing and eating the T-bone special throughout their conversation. Bits of juice and Worcestershire sauce kept dribbling down his chin and onto a white napkin.
“They have been dining on beefsteak and barley since the Battle of Little Big Horn, so naturally they think of mushrooms as frivolous, valueless little foodstuffs, right up there with…parsley!”
“I can get you some mushrooms if you want,” said Mary, the lilt in her voice as alive and enticing as dew on a daisy.
“No thanks, but I’ll take a few more slices of bread if you would be so kind,” he said.
With an impish grin and her heart singing, Mary O’Boyle skedaddled into the kitchen. She imagined that her fellow waitresses would crowd around her in girlish excitement, prattling on about the fine young gentleman who was lavishing such attention upon her. Instead, the women screwed their eyes disapprovingly and told her to grow up. Most of the waitresses were older women who wore their hair in tight buns and served the diners with lipless frowns. To them, the patron in question was a gawky rube in a cheap linen suit and a dumb bow tie, clearly a palooka from the boondocks, and Dearie, there ain’t nothing worse than the boondocks, take it from us. But Mary O’Boyle thought the rube was very nice.
Mary O’Boyle, both a Palmer House waitress and an American resident of three months standing, had emigrated from a barren homeland that she had come to believe would curdle her youth, energy, and fiery red hair as surely as phytophthora infestans drained the strength and sap of a healthy potato. Her American contacts, an aunt and uncle in Chicago, had promised her a waitress job in what turned out to be a famous hotel and a bed in what had proven to be a large closet. Mary accepted both without question, because everyone told her that America was the land of opportunity.
“You must remember,” said Arnold Knutson, “that America is the land of opportunity!” He brandished a slice of bread for emphasis. “What this means is that the accepted norms of today could very well be the forgotten past of tomorrow. I dare say you have lovely eyes. What is your name?”
“Mary,” replied Mary, the first syllable hanging in the air long after the second one had slipped away.
“Well, Mary,” said the young man in the cheap linen suit and polka-dot bow tie, “I have seen the future, and it is spelled F-U-N-G-U-S!” He noticed her eyes widen with each letter.
“Did you know,” he whispered conspiratorially, “that a meal of mushrooms provides a man with more vitality and natural humors than three servings of chicken, meat, or fish?”
“I dare say!” replied Mary O’Boyle.
“It’s true! It was proven in a study conducted at a respected medical school some years ago. One test group ate a steady diet of whatever foods they liked, as much as they wanted. The second group was fed mushrooms, and only mushrooms, for three weeks running. By the end of the experiment, the men who dined freely were fat, bloated, and as weak as jellyfish. The mushroom men, however, well…”
“Well what?!” said Mary O’Boyle. In the corner of her eye, she could see a gentleman at a distant table waving furiously in her direction. She had taken his order at some forgotten time previously.
“I fear I cannot discuss the results with a lady such as yourself,” said Arnold Knutson, and his fair-skinned, hairless face turned a beet shade of red that he tried to hide underneath the dabbings of his napkin.
It was then that a burly man in a greasy black suit strode up to the table and insinuated himself into the conversation.
“Miss O’Boyle,” he growled, “may I have a word with you in my office?”
Had Arnold Knutson not followed the waitress and the burly man into the burly man’s office, which in fact was merely a desk in a corner of the kitchen, then life in Fergus Falls would have been irrevocably altered from that moment onward. For a few pointless minutes, Arnold Knutson sopped up the last of the steak juices with tasteless white bread and continued for his own amusement the diatribe about the merits of fungi. Yet eventually it dawned upon him to wonder what had happened to his waitress and companion, and with a flick of his boater hat he went to look for her. He caught up to her just as the burly man in the greasy black suit was showing Mary to the back door and the alley beyond.
“Did you fire this girl?” Knutson spat. “This is outrageous! I won’t hear of it.”
Mary O’Boyle couldn’t help but smile at her would-be savior.
“And just why,” sneered the burly man, the bristles of his thick mustache wavering not an inch, “can’t I fire a waitress just like that?” He snapped his fingers in front of Knutson’s face.
Arnold Knutson shuffled his brain for an answer. Knutson imagined himself a gentleman farmer in the tradition of Washington or Jefferson, as well as a man as modern and urbane as any of the fine businessmen who graced luxurious establishments such as the Palmer House Hotel. Of course he would see that the pedantic boor before him would not fire the innocent young lady whom he had befriended. All that remained was how this was to be accomplished. The solution was….money!
How delightfully simple!
With great elan, Arnold Knutson reached for his billfold and rifled through its treasure. He emerged with a motley collection of currency that he thrust into the burly man’s ugly little face.
“There,” Knutson said gallantly, “I think this shall solve any problem you may have. Am I correct, sir?”
The burly man looked curiously at Knutson’s offering. He counted the bills and coins, quite carefully, to a total of five dollars and thirteen cents.
The burly man looked up at Knutson in a totally different light.
“Well, sir,” he said, “you are most generous. Most generous indeed.”
Knutson grinned smartly to the waitress as the burly man stuffed the bills and coins into a deep pants pocket.
“I’d say you’ve purchased yourself a waitress,” continued the burly man.
“Oh, what do you mean?” asked Knutson.
“I mean the two of you may together get the hell out of my kitchen,” he replied, suddenly all bluster again. “Both of you! Now!”
Just like that, Arnold Knutson found himself alone with Mary the waitress in a dingy back alley. He was fuming like a stock pot with its lid slammed shut.
“Of all the….I’m talking to the hotel manager about this…Never in my life have I been treated….I’m….” Knutson struggled onward mightily. “Will you marry me?” he blurted out.
“What?!?” squealed Mary O’Boyle.
“You must marry me. I won’t hear anything less,” said Knutson with a rapid resolve. Almost as an afterthought, he grabbed her around the waist and kissed her resolutely. After a short moment of deliberation, she kissed him back.
Mary insisted on their taking the next train out of town, lest either of them change their minds. The train conductor married them just as they lurched past Kenosha, Wisconsin. Although the man had never before performed such a ceremony nor realized he held the power to do so, the bridegroom pointed out that a conductor was no less capable than a justice of the peace or a ship’s captain, and the train conductor found no counter argument at his disposal. Two porters and a passenger named Solomon Walsmud served as witnesses.
At the Milwaukee station the bride sent a telegram to her aunt and uncle, and by Madison the newlyweds had retired to their compartment, a bottle of sparkling ginger ale at their bedside. The ginger ale was an impromptu gift from the train crew, Prohibition barring anything less prosaic.
As towns and pastureland passed invisibly through the night, Arnold’s newfound wife gradually lapsed into a fragile sleep, one he assumed was draped in post-coital bliss.
By the following afternoon, long after the rolling hills of Wisconsin had given way to the flat, oh-so-flat prairie of Minnesota, the conductor finally announced their arrival in Fergus Falls. Yet the newly-deemed Mrs. Mary Knutson peered out the train window and found herself less than fully resolved to disembark. The overwhelming stench of agriculture did not help matters.
“Ah, the smell of the future!” cried her husband exuberantly.
Perched aboard a horse-drawn buggy, her husband of one day’s standing snuggled awkwardly at her side, the young Irish immigrant surveyed her surroundings. In many ways, downtown Fergus Falls reminded her of what she had left behind in Chicago, or even Dublin. The bumpy streets were an ill symphony of people, horses, carriages, old men with pushcarts, women with ragged children in tow, all rushing about in different directions. She noticed some fine hats for sale at the Fergus Falls Millinery, and next to that a store that sold grains and coffee out of large oaken barrels, and next to that a barber shop. Yet periodically interrupting such vistas was evidence of an extremely foreign culture, even to a country lass such as herself. They passed a large wagonload of deep black poultry manure, driven by a team of two drays and steered by an old farmer and his wife, both dressed in overalls and straw hats, and all smelling like an exhausted privy. Mary assumed it was poultry manure because of the telltale chicken feathers that dotted the wagon’s cargo and floated casually behind as it passed. She surprised herself with feelings of superiority over these people, perhaps because she still was dressed in the uniform of the Palmer House—sweaty, unpressed, donned and re-donned uniform though it was.
“Why,” asked Mary as politely and inoffensively as she could manage, “is this town full of shit?”
Arnold Knutson brought his head back from the clouds and looked at her quizzically, as if noticing her for the first time since their arrival.
“Haven’t you been listening to me, my dear?” he exclaimed. “Mushrooms grow from manure, and here we grow mushrooms. This is Fergus Falls, Minnesota: The Mushroom Capital of America!”
“And your business, Mr. Knutson,” she murmured, “that would be….”
“Mushroom farmer, of course! But my goodness, Mary, you should call me Arnold. We are married, you know.”
They rode in silence for the rest of the trip. The carriage eventually came to rest at the very edge of town, at what appeared to be a small, dilapidated farm. A few scrawny chickens clucked forward to greet them, and a distance. The one-story house was more like a large shack, with peeling white paint revealing gray wood underneath, a slate roof as uneven as the downtown streets had been bumpy, and the windows either cloudy or full of cracks or absent altogether. Behind the house were row upon row of flat clapboard beds with mushrooms of all sizes poking out of them. In the front yard, measuring at least twenty feet across and just as tall, lurked a stinkier pile of animal excrement than Mary O’Boyle Knutson would have imagined in her oddest, most obtuse nightmares.
“Welcome to your new home, love of my life,” sang the gawky stranger in the rumpled beige linen suit.
Mary jumped out the carriage and ran as quickly as she could in no particular direction, stopping abruptly when her way was blocked by a large oak tree that smelled as ingrained in excrement as everything else in town. She collapsed to the ground at the base of the big oak, at which she commenced to wail and pound with her tiny fists, her tears bubbling forth like a wellspring, pooling on the spongy soil and seeping into whatever world lay beneath.
Farley McTree, the dry goods merchant, bent over the little carriage and cooed and clucked at the tiny package therein, a baby girl in terry cloth leggings and a lacy pink bonnet.
“Oooh, hiya, hiya, hiya!” he warbled through mottled larynx and yellow teeth. “She’s a pretty one, she is. Just like her mother, if you don’t mind me sayin’.”
“Thank you, Mr. McTree,” replied Mrs. Knutson correctly. “You are very kind.” As Farley McTree bowed ever so slightly, she continued her stroll down the sidewalk of Van Buren Avenue, pushing with no effort the white wicker baby carriage. Other men tipped their hats and stepped out of her way as she approached.
“That Mrs. Knutson is quite the fine lady,” said a man in front of the barber shop.
“I’ll say she is!” said the barber, pulling on his suspenders.
The year was Nineteen hundred and twenty-nine.
For the better part of seven years of married life, Mary O’Boyle Knutson endeavored toward the highest standards of dress, housing, bearing, and personal hygiene that her husband’s income would allow. While she held only the vaguest idea of how great that income might be, clearly it was quite substantial, because attaining the highest standards of living proved remarkably easy.
At the farmhouse, Mary contracted for biannual coats of paint and a weekly scrubbing of the windows, replacing the broken ones as necessary. She banished to the woodpile her husband’s mildewy sofas and armchairs, replacing them with finely crafted furniture of the Federalist style complemented by genuine Persian carpets from Persia and Oriental floor lamps from the Orient. When they proved tiresome she redecorated in a faux-Egyptian motif, including sculpted settees and tall ceramic pots and wall hangings of Pharaohs and assorted goddesses, all imported from Cairo, Egypt, via a barge that transferred in Cairo, Illinois. Her name, face, and figure were well known to each of the town’s dressmakers, who fashioned elaborate and splendid garments in imitation of patterns created in France or Italy, typically encompassing unusually silky fabrics and lots of frills or tassels around the waist and bust. At times, Mrs. Knutson ordered such garments from France and Italy directly.
On a different front, for a month’s worth of Tuesdays Mary ventured the morning’s journey to St. Cloud for half-hour appointments with a voice trainer. He cut and shaped her Irish brogue until it was as flat and proper as the Minnesota prairie, and when he was finished he threw in a few Gilbert and Sullivan arias for only a nominal fee. When the renovation of the farmhouse was complete, Mary staged musical recitals, first featuring her own talent, then the talent of others in the community, then travelers from other regions of the great land they all called home. Next came high teas, thematic brunches, dramatic readings, scholarly lectures (“The Effects of Magnetism on the Central Nervous System,” by Doctor E. M. Cathcart; “In Praise of Chickadees and My Other Feathered Friends,” by the Most Reverend Lawson Wuhlmond) and quite famously, an annual costume ball, in which the doges and doyennes of Fergus Falls entertained one another in the guises of pirates, princes, and assorted pagan deities. Most significantly, at least in her own mind, she installed the finest wash tub, ceramic tiles, and other bathtime accouterment that mail-order delivery could provide. She availed herself of these fixtures at least twice a day, three times during the summer.
“The business of growing mushrooms may stink up this town,” wrote the former Mary O’Boyle in her diary, which featured pressed rose petals on the cover, “but it shall not stink up me.”
If one doubt nagged at her mind, it was the important yet disingenuously meaningless question of how her expansively elegant lifestyle was being supported. For never, not once, did she remit hard cash for any purchase dearer than an ice cream soda. To every merchant and service provider in town, and even to those elsewhere, a credit in the name of her husband sufficed for payment. It was as if the name Arnold Knutson held people in a magic trance, eager to obey his wife’s bidding.
“The mushrooms are a’ bloomin’!” Arnold exclaimed proudly one day as he sauntered in from the fields, odoriferous effluvia matted to his pale skin.
“Not in my living room!” cried Mary as she shooed him into the screen porch, where she had installed a hose and a trough.
“The mushrooms are kind of limp,” moaned Knutson on a day the following year, this time collapsing his gawky frame on a bench several yards away from the house, which had become as close as his wife would allow him to approach while stained from agriculture. “I think the ranchers changed the mix on that latest batch of excrement. Too much pig, probabaly, and not enough chicken.”
“I bought a piano today,” Mary shouted gaily from the house. “It comes with twelve hours of lessons!”
“We lost the entire crop,” spoke Knutson matter-of-factly at dinner one evening on a subsequent year. He and Mary sat on opposite ends of the table as their cook, Bridgette, served a fine meal of lake trout fillets with a mushroom and red pepper garnish.
“Oh, what happened, dear?” asked Mary. Her attention was still focused on the operatic recital of the previous evening, during which a high note from the soprano visibly rattled the Burano glass goblets balanced over the mantelpiece–a thrilling moment for all assembled.
“A fungus got them,” he mumbled through bites of fish.
Mary considered this for a moment.
“I thought mushrooms are fungus, dear.”
“Different kind,” mumbled Knutson unhappily.
In bed that night, dressed in a flowing chenille nightgown of the sort worn by women nowhere else in the state, Mary turned to her husband and casually broached the subject of money.
“Shtocks en bawns,” he muttered through the thick downy pillows.
“What, my darling?”
“Shtocks and bons,” he repeated. Mary stroked his blond hair, which was thinning slightly on top. “Plus everyone in town owns a share of this farm.”
The two would never speak about finances again.
As the years passed, Mary noticed her husband spending less and less time tending his mushroom beds, nor stocking the excrement piles, nor hauling his knobby little produce to the depots in town. Such tasks he left to the foreman, a Japanese named Mr. Yamaguchi, and to an increasing number of farmhands and day workers. She deemed these changes to be quite appropriate, especially in light of the steady stream of embossed letters in fancy envelopes postmarked New York City, New York. Curiously, whatever news those letters contained seemed never to cheer her husband all that much.
Rather than pour over journals and newspapers while wearing a smoking jacket, which was how Mary imagined Arnold would be spending more and more of his leisure time, he instead took to a small shed on the north end of the property, where, as he told his wife and whoever else might ask, he was experimenting with the cultivation of new and unusual varieties of edible fungus.
“The mushroom business is built around one extremely common species, which we know as Agaricus campestris,” Knutson would orate to most anyone who would listen, such as the women’s group his wife had organized. “Most people place the taste of this mushroom between acceptable and inoffensive, which is all well and good.”
The eyeglasses with which the druggist had fit him made him look vaguely birdlike during those years, an image enhanced by the strained muscles stretched over his neck and the ruddiness of his nose, which was enlarging and reddening mysteriously.
“But ladies, I submit to you that the future of mushrooms lies with more exotic specimens,” he orated. “The chanterelle, the greenish russula, the pine cone, the morel, the boletus luteus! Why can’t we raise these delicious, enticing delicacies in the hallowed mushroom beds of Fergus Falls?!”
“Here, here,” called a blue-haired woman from the back row.
“I will tell you why, madam,” said Knutson with hearty forcefulness. “Because no one knows how to domesticate the bloody bastards.” An audible gasp coursed through the women, and one of the more elderly among them fainted. Mary Knutson rushed to her side, her face twisted in reproach at her husband.
“Whoever figures out the mystery of the greenish russula, my dear ladies, he will raise Fergus Falls to true greatness,” continued Arnold. “My wife seems to be telling me we are out of time, so I will leave you with my sincere thanks and good wishes.” He scurried away from the tepid applause and beelined to his laboratory in the small shed.
Somewhere in those years, the Knutsons managed to conceive their one and only child, a daughter, whom they named Sarah.
On a moderately frigid day in October, an immaculately and very tastefully dressed Mary Knutson strolled down the sidewalk of Van Buren Avenue, pushing her baby daughter in front of her, soaking in the compliments, silent and vocal alike, of her fellow townsfolk. Just as the Sun dipped behind the sky’s sole cloud, however, a newsboy carrying an armload of the Fergus Falls Examiner blocked their path, not deliberately but by happenstance. At the top of his boyish lungs he yelled something about an extra, something about Wall Street, and something about eggs. Men began crowding around him, parting eagerly with their nickels and dimes for news that Mary did not entirely understand.
At home, she discovered most of the farmhands surrounding Mr. Yamaguchi, the foreman, who was clutching the same newspaper she had seen for sale in town.
“You up shit creek,” said Mr. Yamaguchi.
“I beg your pardon,” replied Mary Knutson.
“Your life is shit, full of shit,” repeated Mr. Yamaguchi. Although none of the other hands were Japanese or even Oriental, each looked at her with the same placid, serious, horror-frozen faces, the same tut-tutting of justified reproach. Mary felt the blood drop from her rosy cheeks like a dead capon thrown from a barn roof.
She went looking for her husband, who was nowhere to be found.
Mary would continue looking for him the following day, and the day after that and the day after that, until she gradually concluded that she was better off searching for something else, anything else in this Fergus Falls, nestled as it was in America, the land of opportunity.
The rest of the twentieth century passed by in an instant. It would be over before you can turn the page.