Acremonium first appeared in Volume 28 of the Nashwaak Review (Fall 2012).



The bile-black stain, fringed like a splotch of oil, was no bigger than a dime.  It marked the underside of the rococo wallpaper where a corner had peeled up from the floor moulding, behind the threadbare, Queen Anne love seat.  I had tamped the corner of the wallpaper down with some white glue and had continued vacuuming.

Mandy hates the wallpaper, with its intricate, gold brocade.  We almost didn’t buy the house because of it.  It reminds me of the Vatican, she’d said, I don’t want to feel like I’m on display.  I’d promised we’d redecorate.  But what do I know about home improvement?  When is there time?  We can’t afford to hire someone.  Not yet.

That unraveling edge, discovered one year ago last Sunday, would have re-opened the topic and recalled my promise.  To what benefit?  Anyway, the spot could have been a measurement indicator made by a conscientious paper hanger, or an inky thumbprint made by a negligent one.  It could have been the sort of discoloration that comes with age.  Oxidized nails beneath the eroding lath and plaster.  Structural liver spots.

There were plenty of rational explanations to choose from, including the correct one: the unassuming smudge contained a pioneering cladosporium colony, the advance guard of a much larger host mustering beyond the joists, formed up alongside aspergillus and mucor.  Divisions of ponderous stachybotrys and acremonium waited in reserve.

Brown mould, black mould, slime mould.  I didn’t know the Latin names then. I have a PhD in economics, not mycology.  Now?  I can list hundreds of the genii of the Fungi kingdom, and like a sports card collector, recite their vital statistics.  Did you know that there are over one hundred thousand species of mould?  The spores are less than four microns across.  You could fit two hundred and fifty thousand of them onto a pin tip.  Seven hundred thousand can be drawn into the lungs in a minute.  Think of that.

It’s important to attach measurement to that which can’t be seen.  Like spores.  It’s our only defence:  otherwise we’re held hostage to the infinitesimal and the pan-galactic.  And I know a thing or two about measuring the invisible.  My thesis advisor was Carl Conrad Morton, you may have heard of him.  He was a disciple of Eugene Caplan, whose own mentor was the revered Robert Lewis Everton Jr..  I’m quite sure you’ve heard of him.  The Everton Paradox?  Aggregated microeconomic models may predict their macroeconomic counterparts in theory, but not in practice.  Micro informs the macro.  You see?  It comes down to tiny measurements.

This was once his house!  Everton devised both the paradox and its solution while living in this spindled, turreted pile.  Mandy and I purchased the place when I started my post-doctoral fellowship.  It couldn’t hurt to breathe in some of that residual genius could it?  I mean, the Robert Lewis Everton Jr..  Here.  He’d probably smoked his Partagas Perfecto and quaffed Otard from a warmed snifter in that wingback chair next to the hearth.  The flue is filled in now and the chair could use some re-upholstering, but you can still sense the greatness, can’t you?  I sit in that chair from time to time, nursing a Chilean cab, perusing my Everton, or Morton, or even Smith, and I have the most wonderful insights.  The next big idea, something substantial enough to attach to my name, has nearly come to me on a dozen occasions.  The Mazursky Index.  Or, The Mazursky Contradiction.

Mandy was reluctant. It’s too old, she’d said. Too big, too expensive. It smells. It has character, I’d replied, we’ll have room to grow.  The truth: she hasn’t studied much Everton.  I met her when she was just a second-year undergrad and I was in the last year of my PhD.  She’d only had time to complete the survey courses, basic analytic techniques, statistical tools, and so on.  If she had read Everton’s Information Imbalance Supply Model and its repudiation of the Phillips curve she likely would have had a different first impression.  As it was, she got pregnant near the end of her second year and didn’t continue with the programme.  She missed out on Everton entirely.

To be fair, her concern about price point may have been valid.  After a decade of post-secondary education, my debt-to-income ratio was nothing to publicize.  I’m not sure what you think a post-doctorate appointment pays, but consider somewhere above janitorial engineer and well below public transit operator.  The asking price was inflated – a similar yellow-bricked, Edwardian number a street down sold for half the amount we paid for this one – but you can hardly fault the realtor for charging what the market demands; for the history, the cachet, the corner lot. If it wasn’t us, it would be someone less deserving, someone less reverent.

Trust me, it was a rational decision.  Even with everything that has happened, I’m confident that the old shack will double in value, eventually.  There are the intangibles:  the goodwill generated and my stature enhanced by the dinner parties thrown for faculty and graduates at the house of Everton.  Sure, we’re stretched now, but when I get my tenured position and my income triples… let’s just say that such worries will look quaint. You can’t do anything worthwhile without incurring debts here and there.   In the meantime, here we are.


It’s not uncommon to have a miscarriage early in your first pregnancy. This is what we’ve learned.  The obstetrician assured us that it can be nature’s way of getting the uterus ready for the real thing.  It had nothing to do with the lifting of boxes and furniture that Mandy insisted on doing when we moved in.

The doctor also said that couples often get pregnant immediately after a miscarriage and that’s what happened to us.  It was mid-July that Mandy discovered she was pregnant for the second time.  She decided not to continue with the undergraduate programme that year.  At twenty-eight, with one unfinished BA in fine arts, and another half-completed in economics, her imperatives had turned toward motherhood.

All through that torrential autumn, while I spent long hours at the department, attending meetings, participating in conferences, teaching classes, and researching my book, Mandy stayed at home, getting it ready for baby.  Rain?  Like Rangoon in August.  It would have been surprising if Mandy hadn’t got a little agitated, hunkered down through those long days, alone in the old chateau.

The coughing started late October.  I must admit, the smell had intensified.  Through the summer we’d forgotten all about it.  But now, as the central heating kicked in and pushed thick, damp warmth through the ductwork and shoved it out the vent grilles, a stale, yeastiness permeated the place.  The air was so laden that it seemed to have its own mass, like you could lean forward and take a bite.

Having spent my childhood growing up in a succession of weather-beaten, century farmhouses, the mustiness was familiar and it evoked some wonderful memories.  Houses, like people, have their own peculiar odours.  Especially the older ones.  For Mandy, child of the gleaming suburbs, the emanations did not bring nostalgia.  Only affliction.  She would hack until she was echoing the next-door terrier.  When she didn’t cough, she wheezed.  Every day her chest tightened further, she complained, like it was closing in on itself.  Her face had bloomed red, aggravated by the constant scratching.

The doctor could find nothing.  At first, the hypothesis was adult-onset asthma.  She was prescribed an inhaler and the symptoms abated.  But it wasn’t long before the inhaler was insufficient.  She claimed to feel better only when she was shopping.  Isn’t it a convenient cure to spend half the day in the mall, I’d asked.  Our credit won’t survive your convalescence.  We had an epic row and she spent the night at her mother’s.

Why was she affected but not me?  Could she be imagining the symptoms?  Was it psychosomatic?  Or, some elaborate, passive-aggressive swipe at a house she never wanted to purchase in the first place?  I don’t know.  I can tell you all about aggregating microeconomic models, but I’m no psychologist.  What I did know was that Mandy was spending two hours and $125 a day at a country cottage, undergoing “toxic shock therapy” as directed by a naturopathic witch doctor her mother’s best friend Lucille had recommended.


One weekend, while Mandy was away, I got down on my knees and lifted up that corner of the wallpaper with a butter knife.  The spot had grown.  It now resembled the dun-coloured velvet jacketing an overripe peach.  Its leading edges spidered beneath the floor moulding and across to the doorway jamb.  I pulled at the corner a little more and was surprised at how easily it detached from the wall.  The stain extended upward in every direction, blackening the plaster more deeply the higher it went.  With my head close to the floorboards I thought I could see a bulge in the wall a third of the way down from the ceiling.  I stood up and ran my hand over the straining surface.  There was a curvature in the wall and I could feel rubble, as if the house had shuddered and its plaster had collected in this pouch.  Much like how my stomach felt at that moment.

I raced around the house, from the den to the study, then to the master bedroom and bathroom, utility room and kitchen.  I scraped at the wallpaper, pried up mouldings, and removed fixtures.  Everywhere it was the same: a brownish film extending into every expanse and every crevice.  I was barely able to put everything back before Mandy returned.

For three weeks I spent every available moment researching household mould when I should have been preparing for the neo-classical grad course I was teaching in the next term.  I became an amateur mycologist.  I learned an incredible amount about the complex creatures.  Did you know that the the world’s largest organism is a mushroom?  Armillaria ostoyae.  A 2400-year-old, 2200-acre mushroom.  Devastating the woods of eastern Oregon like some nightmarish, Hollywood alien.  It’s not much to look at; it conducts its business beneath the earth.  Out of sight, just like my fungi.

More importantly, I learned that mould cannot exist without moisture.  So, I installed four commercial dehumidifiers in strategic points around the house and let them run day and night. The electric bill was grotesque, but it seemed to be working; there was less of a tang in the air.  Even so, Mandy insisted I hire a contractor.  I called Tudhope Environmental, an outfit that usually only deals with industrial sites, and they agreed to schedule an inspection.  Just imagining their rates makes my breathing ragged.

Mandy lost the baby last Thursday.  Twenty-second week.  The doctors induced labour.  In all respects, it was very painful.  The obstetrician said that sometimes it helps with the healing process to see the stillbirth, to see it and grieve.  The fetus – it had all its features; it was so human, so real.  I didn’t like to see it.  I turned away.

She moved back in with her parents.  There is no proof that the miscarriages are correlated with the presence of mould – she might just be predisposed.  She might have an incompetent cervix.  When I explained this to Mandy, she said some regrettable things.  And then she left.  She’s not sure if she will return.

Spring term is now almost complete and Stan Tudhope arrived this morning, finally.  After introducing himself and listening to my appraisal of the situation, he said nothing.  Occasionally he pulled a pencil from the side of his square, brush-cut head to carve something out in his notepad or to equip his chunky glasses for a closer look.  He surveyed the walls and the sagging plaster, grunting.  Twenty minutes later he asked how to get into the attic.  I shrugged apologetically and then followed him upstairs where he found a two-foot square trap door.  I retrieved a step ladder from the utility room and, when I returned, Tudhope handed me a heavy-duty facemask before donning one himself.  We climbed inside.

The exhalation from the attic, like the fat palm of an enormous, invisible hand, nearly pushed us back out the hatch.  Moist, organic heat radiated from all sides.  I had to knuckle the tears from my watering eyes in order to see.  There were scores of cardboard boxes containing papers, books, and magazines.  A half dozen demi-johns, the remnants of a failed or forgotten home brewing project.  Two wicker chairs.  Plus, a low, five by ten table covered with a sheet.

Every surface was covered with a dense carpet of continuous mould.  Black mould furred the walls.   Green mould mossed the joists.  A spectacular orange specimen spumed from the open neck of a jug.  A leather bound collection of classic texts wore a looping sash of brown.  Tufts of grey hung from the mottled portrait of Friedrich August von Hayek.

Tudhope studied the menagerie for several minutes.  He crossed the beams cautiously to the openings of the dormer windows, pulled a utility knife from a holster on his belt, extracted a blade and flicked at the window frame.  He picked up the chunk of wood that fell out and squeezed it between his fingers, almost touching them together.  Rot, he said.  Dry and wet.  It’s these windows, the rain streams right in.  He shook his head a long time, like he wondered how the house was still standing.  Then, taking a corner between his thumb and forefinger, he pulled the sheet back from the large, low table.

When the cloud of dust, filaments, and spores had settled, we were presented with a half-finished, scale model of the greater portion of the town.  I had no idea Everton had been an expert miniaturist.  You can never know anyone completely, I suppose.  He’d captured everything with painstaking detail: street signs, sidewalks, trees, and lawns.  The internal proportions were immaculate.  His house was perfect, right down to the six dormer windows, three on either side; the windows that were the source of my own current anguish.  Tudhope and I gaped mutely for several minutes at the tiny, perfect scene.  Then, he replaced his knife into its holster and the pencil behind his ear and was back down the step ladder.

Later, in the foyer, he explained that the entire roof needs replacing.  All existing lath and plaster must be removed and reconstructed to eliminate the mould.  All remaining surfaces require disinfection.  The whole project would cost not less than one hundred fifty thousand dollars.  He couldn’t give an exact figure, of course, but he promised a full and itemized estimate.  I thanked him for his time and showed him the door brusquely, not wanting him to witness my own imminent disintegration.

What can be done?  I can’t afford the repairs.  I can’t afford to move.  Dazed, I returned to the step ladder.  I applied the face mask that Tudhope had left behind and re-entered through the hatch.  I scanned the giant petri dish, blinking.  A wicker chair sat between the model and one of the dormer windows.  I scraped a layer of mould from the seat and fell into it.  Head in hands, I gazed through my fingers at the window sash.  How could it fail so abysmally?

After a while, five minutes or half an hour, I noticed someone outside on the street.  It was those kids; I can’t remember their names, McEwen or something.   They’d set up a drink stand – classic, with hand-drawn sign – Lemonade 25 ¢ – an iced pitcher and stacked glasses.  But it’s not a busy street.  It was a cool, mid-March day.  Who drinks lemonade anymore?  I watched for another thirty minutes.  No-one came by.  Inevitably, the kids tired of sitting and started to toss a Frisbee.  They skateboarded.  They drank all the lemonade.

It’s baffling.  Poor location, unwanted product, weak advertising, low productivity, subpar market conditions.  Not one sale.  Something about the whole thing made me very angry. A clutch of spores and dust fell from the rafters when my scream reverberated through the attic.

I shifted and studied the model.  People were Everton’s only weakness.  He was unable to sculpt and paint realistic looking citizens.  The grocer’s head was three sizes too big.  The cop had gorilla-like arms and no mouth.  The mayor was all elbows.  Everton placed himself, his wife, and two kids in the front yard of their house – this house – adorned with the most misshapen noses, misplaced eyes, and garish grins – a family of goblins.

Even stranger:  I know for a fact that Everton was a life-long bachelor.

When I turned back to the window the drink stand was folded up and the kids were gone.