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Based on 4 1/2 years Joe Clifford Faust spent working in Law Enforcement, The Mushroom Shift is a snapshot of a different world that isn’t that far in the past. Yet while it comes from a time before political correctness, its theme of men struggling to hang on to their jobs is as relevant now as when the book was first written. It’s also the most unusual police story you’ll ever read, with no gunshots or car chases, where the mundane becomes a grind. Profane and darkly funny, it captures all the humor and horror, the triumphs and tragedies that are a part of daily life for those who wear a badge.
It tells the story of Clarence Raymond Monmouth, a deputy with the Badlands County Sheriff’s Department in Modern Times, Wyoming, who is finishing his third year on the despised Mushroom Shift – midnight to eight a.m. – in the final weeks of 1985.
As the year draws to a close, Monmouth comes to realize that the county’s aging Sheriff will soon be succeeded by the political enemy who put Monmouth on the Mushroom Shift to begin with. Survival mode kicks in and he begins to consider his options, interrupted by his crumbling marriage, his drinking, and the never-ending parade of drunk drivers, family fights and perverts that make up small town police work.
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“This may be the single best piece of writing I have ever done in my life.”
Excerpted from The Mushroom Shift by Joe Clifford Faust. Copyright © 1985 & 2011 by Joe Clifford Faust. Reprinted by permission of the author; no part of this excerpt may be reproduced without permission in writing from the author.
Clarence Monmouth was miserable. He was tired because he hadn’t slept after work, and he should have eaten two hours ago. To top it all off, the muscles in his face were about to collapse from the smile he was using to appease Mona’s relatives.
Thirteen year-old Montgomery was the first to approach him. Monmouth hated the kid because he spent all his time in the basement messing with a Radio Shack computer. Monmouth thought that in his time the kid would have walked around with a slide-rule hanging from his belt. The kid had no interest in sports, and lived for large family gatherings such as this.
“Clarence,” he said, tugging on his shirt sleeve, “I’m going to be setting up the Monopoly game after dinner. Do you want in?”
Monmouth stared at him. The kid’s glasses were so thick that it looked like he had four ears. “You anxious or something?”
Montgomery grinned, showing a mouth full of braces. “I’m getting reservations for victims this year.”
Monmouth shook his head. “Not this year, Monty.”
He cackled. “Too good for you, huh?”
“You cheat like hell,” Monmouth informed him.
“I’ll give you the little dog this year.”
“Beat it,” he growled.
“I’ll give you an edge,” he said. “You can start with an extra five hundred or the green property of your choice.”
“I’m not interested,” Monmouth said calmly.
“Why you little-“
Mona appeared at that moment and put her arm around her husband’s shoulder. “How you doing, Ray? Getting along?”
“Oh yes,” he answered through clenched teeth.
“Clarence is afraid to get in the Monopoly game.”
Mona ruffled her brother’s hair. “He’s had a rough time at work. Christmas is always a bad time for law enforcement.”
“This year’s been especially bad,” Monmouth hinted.
“I could see reason for that in a metropolitan area,” said Montgomery, “but in a rural area like this, the rates of holiday depression are significantly lower…”
“Except for the nosy kid who can’t get anyone to play Monopoly with him,” snarled Monmouth.
“Maybe next year, Monty,” Mona said. She pecked Monmouth on the cheek and disappeared.
“Five hundred and two railroads,” the boy offered.
“Tell you what. I’ll get in this game of yours if you join our touch football game.”
Montgomery took a step back. “I’ve seen your touch football games.”
“I’ll give you an edge,” Monmouth offered. “I guarantee that you won’t get hurt at all.”
The kid was interested. “Really?”
He waved his hand inches from the boy’s face. “Yeah. I can wad you up and use you for the ball. Now beat it.”
Montgomery turned paler than he already was and made a hasty retreat. Monmouth turned the other way and bumped into Mona’s mother.
“Grace,” he blushed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t see you.”
“No harm done.” She held a steaming bowl under his nose. “I made your favorite,” she continued in a singsong voice.
“Not Walnut/Yam Casserole,” Monmouth said thinly.
Grace flashed her false teeth and pulled out a spoonful. “I wanted Mona’s big old crime fighter to tell me how this batch was.”
“No,” Monmouth said quickly. “That’s all right. I can wait.”
“But you always rave about it, and you were so disappointed last year when you didn’t get any.” She moved the spoon in on his mouth. It was heavy with a stringy, lumpy concoction.
“No Grace, re-“
The spoon slid into his mouth and fell onto his tongue. His throat closed, having no intent of letting the abomination in his mouth pass through.
“How is it?” she asked, eyes sparkling.
Monmouth tried to move the goo to one side of his mouth so he could speak but the muscles were frozen. He smiled and made the OK sign with his fingers.
“Oh, you’re such a good man.” She stood on her tip-toes to hug him on the neck.
When she finally left, Monmouth’s eyes rolled and he headed for the bathroom. Norton Hubbard got to the door first and crowded in ahead, laughing in short, asthmatic spasms.
“Sorry, Ray. Gotta make room, y’know. They got a big bird this year and I intend to eat my share.”
Monmouth glared at the pear-shaped man.
“I’m ready for the arm wrestling championships of the world,” Norton told him. “You ready for me to wax your ass this year?”
Monmouth wagged his finger.
Norton laughed out loud. “I like you, Monmouth. But if you weren’t a cop, I’d say you were a wuss.”
Monmouth flipped him off as the door closed and made his way to the sliding glass doors that overlooked the back yard. He slid one open and stepped out, surveying the snow on the ground. He spit the wad of casserole into his hand and balled his fingers around it, clearing his throat. As soon as the coast was clear, he would fling it out into the outer reaches of the yard.
The door opened behind him. He heard jingling and looked down. Adolph, the McCoy’s gigantic black Labrador, wandered into the yard and heisted his leg against a tree.
“Raymond, how in hell are you?”
Monmouth tried to conceal his distaste and greeted Calvin Price. “How’s the wife?” he asked, hoping he’d take the hint.
“Ramona’s fine,” he answered. If Monmouth had been looking he would have seen him take a long swig of beer. “A good old McCoy girl, she is. I still say you got the best one, Ray. That Mona’s a real hot item.”
“Don’t get worked up,” Monmouth warned. “You don’t want to make an ass of yourself again.”
“Got into town yesterday,” he continued. “Caught Mona’s show last night.” He howled. “Rock and roll!“
“She plays country,” Monmouth informed him.
Adolph finished yellowing the snow and wandered over to the two men, studying them with baggy, bloodshot eyes. He sniffed at Monmouth’s fist, whined, and then licked it. Monmouth obliged and opened his hand. The dog went right to work, lapping the congealed mass from his palm and fingers.
“I got wind of this family at the wrong time,” Calvin told Monmouth. “Too late for Mona. I’m going to have to live with that.”
Monmouth turned on him, making a quick glance at the house to make sure nobody was watching. “Cal,” he said, knowing how he hated to be called that, “a friendly word of advice. Keep your mouth shut this year and go easy on the brew. I’m sick of your cozy-family bullshit, and if your piece comes out of your pants tonight, I’m going to break it off.”
“Big man,” sneered Calvin. “Big cop. Would a hundred bucks do you?”
“That’s bribery, pal,” Monmouth said. He brought his hand up and wiped dog slobber on the front of Calvin’s imported flannel shirt.
Adolph followed him into the house as Horace McCoy rang the dinner bell. People mobbed into the dining room from all parts of the house, and the confusion that ensued as people took their places at the table was something to behold.
Monmouth waited in the living room until the chaos of seating the children in the kitchen was over, then wandered into the dining room. By that time the adults had taken their seats, and all he had to do was take the chair next to Mona. It took a minimum of fuss, and the bickering over who should sit where was already a thing of the past. He smiled, marveling at how well his strategy had served him.
He looked to his right at Mona. She was smiling that smile, the one she got when she was busy and happy on stage, the center of attention. It was a smile he lived to see, and he hadn’t seen it often enough of late. He wished that she would look at him and slip him a wink, anything that would say he was doing a good job and hadn’t made a mess of things so far. But the oldest of the McCoy children was busy looking to her immediate right at the head of the table, where her father Horace sat.
To Horace’s right was his wife, Grace. To Grace’s right was her brother Artemus and his wife LuEllen, and their son, the pear-shaped Norton. To Norton’s right was his younger brother Maxwell, a successful aluminum siding salesman based in Rock Springs, and his wife Ruth. To the right of Ruth was Lionel Budge, the McCoy’s emaciated handyman. At the far end of the table sat Montgomery; to his right and opposite the bird-like Lionel was an empty chair and place setting to commemorate Stafford McCoy, the oldest of the two sons, who was currently serving a hitch in the Navy. Following the empty seat was John Denton, an unemployed autoworker from Michigan. He was seated next to his wife Desdemona, the youngest of the McCoy girls. Calvin Price followed, then Ramona, who sat to Monmouth’s left.
A dozen children appeared and crowded around their respective parents for Horace’s dinner benediction. Once everyone was in place it grew silent. All bowed their heads and Horace began, slowly as usual.
“Great and Holy Merciful Almighty Father in Heaven we thank you for all you have given us, this day, our respective jobs and homes…”
Monmouth’s stomach rumbled.
“We thank you for the gathering of our family and their families and pray that you will bless each one of those who are present here and shower each household with blessings…”
His stomach protested again. Sorry, Lord, Monmouth added, but I wish he’d get on with it so I can shower my stomach with food.
“We pray that you will be with John and his family in their time of need, and we pray that you will help him to find gainful employment so he may support his wife and children in the manner he is accustomed to…”
And help the leaders of his union pull their heads out, quit jacking around, and get that contract negotiated, Monmouth amended.
“And we thank you for this bountiful harvest of food that you have blessed us with.”
Monmouth grinned and looked up, reaching for his fork. Everyone else’s head was still bowed except for one of Max Hubbard’s kids, who was pulling olives from the relish tray and popping them into his mouth. He glared at the kid, who wiped his nose and bowed his head.
“Please be with the Hubbards and their children, the Prices and their children, the Dentons and their children…” There was a long pause. “And Mona and her husband.”
Please help Horace get it through that fat skull of his that Mona is a career woman, Monmouth prayed.
“And Lord, you can see that we have an empty place at our table again this joyous season. We pray that you will be with our son Stafford and comfort him as he serves our great country. Watch over him as this day he is in a foreign land…”
Hong Kong is a wild place, Monmouth told God, speaking from experience. And if he doesn’t pay attention to those hygiene films, please be with the doctors who will be attending him.
“Before we partake of this food, Lord, there are others we would like to recall at this time…”
Here’s the big finish, Lord.
Horace noted widows and orphans, the leaders of the world’s nations who were pursuing peace, the families of the victims of the turnpike sniper, those who were on the road and travelling, the ignorant and lost, the neglected, the homeless, the starving, and added a detailed thanks for everything not previously covered. Horace’s prayer ended with a hearty “Amen” that was echoed by everyone at the table. The crowd of children, all stomach and smiles, broke their circle and went into the kitchen where their table waited.
For the first time that day, Monmouth’s smile was genuine. He grabbed a roll from the plate in front of him and passed the rest to his wife.
“Pass the potatoes, please,” he said enthusiastically.
Mona looked at him, smiling. “What is it with the potatoes, Ray? Every year you pile them on.”
He looked down the table at Ruth Hubbard. “She makes the best mashed potatoes I’ve ever eaten, and that’s no lie.”
“He likes them almost as much as my Walnut/Yam Casserole,” said Grace.
“Oh, yeah,” Monmouth answered.
Lionel picked up the five-quart bowl that brimmed with Ruth’s specialty. He took a small scoop for himself and passed them to his right, saying in his thin voice, “Get these over to that big guy, Monty.”
Monty helped himself, said “Thanks”, and sat them in Stafford’s place.
Monmouth added turkey, ham, and cornbread dressing to his plate. Grace’s special dish came his way and he let it pass.
“Ray, honey,” she said. “It got by you.”
“Oh,” he said. “Well, I thought I’d let everyone else get some before I finished it off.”
Grace and Mona laughed.
“Tell me, Ray,” said Artemus Hubbard, “How is crime in Badlands County this season?”
“Down, I think,” Monmouth said, spilling a line of green peas on his plate. “Had a couple of really good family fights in the last couple of weeks, but other than that it seems to be pretty quiet.”
“I thought,” said Ruth Hubbard, “that Christmas was a bad time because stuff like that went on the upswing.”
He took carrot and celery slices from the relish tray and handed it to his wife. “Actually, in all the years I’ve been in law enforcement, I’ve never actually seen that happen. It could be that cops are more sensitive to it because it’s the holiday season and things are supposed to be happy. I think it’s just a myth put out by the media…” He broke his look at Ruth and stared directly at Montgomery. “…and other people who don’t know a thing about law enforcement.”
Several people laughed, and Monmouth noticed that the potatoes were sitting, waiting for Stafford to appear from Hong Kong and claim his share.
“Say,” he said politely, “would you please pass the potatoes?”
Montgomery looked at him with steely eyes. They said one thing: Monopoly.
Monmouth broke his look on the kid. “John, grab yourself some of those spuds and pass them on down.”
John Denton, in high spirits, thanked the deputy for the advice and picked up the huge dish. Monmouth went back to his plate and added corn and cranberries as they came by. He glanced down the table to check on the progress of the potatoes and something warm pressed into his crotch.
Alarmed, he looked down. His lap held the enormous head of Adolph, who was giving him the once-over with his nose, looking for another handout.
“G’wan,” he ordered the dog. “Beat it.”
The dog snorted between his legs and Monmouth yelped.
Ramona looked at them and started to shake with laughter.
“Isn’t that cute,” said Grace. “Adolph likes him.”
“That’s a first,” Horace observed.
“Adolph!” Mona scolded.
“What does he want?” Norton smirked.
Monmouth grabbed the dog’s collar and pulled its head away. “Scram,” he hissed. “Git.”
Adolph licked his hand and whined.
Monmouth flicked his hand at the dog’s nose. “Shoo. Go eat one of the children.”
Horace stood. “Adolph!” he commanded. “Nein!”
The dog looked sullenly at Horace.
He turned and wandered into the living room. Horace sat and there was more pleasant laughter.
“Don’t know what’s gotten into that hound,” Horace complained.
“I think it’s his prostate,” Grace said. “His urine’s had blood in it lately.”
“Mother!” cried Desdemona Denton.
Monmouth’s throat closed around the piece of turkey he was swallowing. He had to push to get it going again.
“Grace,” Horace said disgustedly, “we’re eating.”
“But Doctor Withers said…”
“Save it, Mom,” suggested Mona. “For dessert.”
The turkey hit Monmouth’s stomach. He checked his plate again and said, “Pass the potatoes, please.”
Mona looked at him. “Didn’t you get any?”
“I was shooing the dog.”
“I’m sorry. The bowl was right in front of you. I thought you’d gotten some.” She looked at her father. “Dad?”
“Grace just took them to the kids.”
“I thought everybody had some,” said Artemus Hubbard.
Monmouth shrugged. “I’ll get some next time around.” He stabbed some dressing and popped it into his mouth. While he was chewing, Grace returned with the large bowl.
“Anyone for more?”
“I’m fine,” said Calvin Price.
Lionel Budge, cheeks stuffed full, gave her a thumbs-up.
She smiled and turned away. Monmouth swallowed hard and called her name. When she stopped, he asked her politely for a portion. She came back to the table, started to hand them across, and stopped.
“What’s wrong?” Monmouth asked.
“These are cold,” she said. “Let me get some fresh.”
“No,” Monmouth blurted. “That’s fine. The gravy’s hot.”
“Gravy’s gone,” said Max Hubbard.
“Oh,” said Grace McCoy. “Tell you what. Let me freshen up these potatoes and get you some more gravy. I’ll be back in a wink.”
Monmouth started to protest, but she was gone. He slumped in his chair, and the Walnut/Yam casserole came his way. Mona smiled and fluttered her eyes.
He took the dish and sat it in front of him. “Thanks,” he said, sourly.
“John,” said Max Hubbard. “How goes the hunt for a job?”
“Okay, I thought,” he answered, “until I heard Horace praying for me.”
“Daddy means well,” Desdemona said over the laughter.
Grace emerged from the kitchen with a fresh batch of potatoes. Horace took the gravy and spread some on his plate. Grace handed the bowl to Norton and told him to pass it to Monmouth.
Norton sniffed the potatoes. “Mmm,” he drooled. “I need seconds.” He took the serving spoon and began to ladle them out.
“Pass the potatoes,” Monmouth said forlornly.
“Mona,” said LuEllen Hubbard, “I hear you’ve got a big audition coming up.”
“Yes.” Mona smiled and began to share the exciting details.
“Pass them spuds over here when you’re done,” said Max Hubbard. Norton obliged.
“Pass the potatoes?” Monmouth asked.
“Adolph’s ten,” Desdemona was telling Calvin. “That’s in people years, of course. I think he’s getting crotchety. And like Mom said… he’s having problems.”
“Whatd’ya think of that turnpike sniper?” Art asked Monmouth. “I bet old Tibbs wouldn’t have pussyfooted around with him. Would’ve gone up there with his six guns blazing, I’ll bet.”
“Pass the potatoes,” he answered flatly, and watched as Lionel took them from Ruth, opened the lid, and started to spoon.
The din from the conversation filled his ears and Monmouth felt as if he was shrinking. The sensation alarmed him. When he was Deputy C.R. Monmouth, Badlands County Sheriff’s Office, everyone listened to him. But now he was plain old Ray Monmouth, the one who had taken Mona McCoy away from home and put her into a lonely, childless marriage.
“Pass the potatoes.”
Nothing. The noise grew in his ears. Montgomery was digging in, taking enough for seconds and thirds. Monmouth’s control of the situation was gone. He no longer existed.
As he floundered, Ross Walden came to him. Walden was an instructor at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy, and he was standing at the base of a lecture hall, drilling the rookies with the single most important thing they would ever learn as a law enforcement officer.
“Control!” he was shouting. “Control! You’ve got to be the one in control! You have a uniform to keep control! You wear the gun to keep control! If you lose it you’re going to be dead. If you start to lose it, get it back! You don’t have to use your stick. You don’t have to use your gun. All you have to know is a little thing called officer presence…”
It clicked. He was in the proper frame of mind now. Deputy Sheriff Clarence Raymond Monmouth looked up from his plate and straight at the object of his desire. His voice came out loud and clear, making his intentions known to all.
“PASS THE FUCKING POTATOES!“
Everything stopped. There was a dead silence in the room. Everyone was staring at him.
“Did I say something wrong?” he said, a citizen again.
Mona got up from the table and ran out of the dining room.
In the silence, Monmouth could hear a new sound, one to which the others were oblivious. It was the sound of Mona’s career crashing to the ground and burning.
He licked his lips and parted them to speak. He wasn’t quite sure of what he’d done, but his mind was racing, trying to think of a good way to explain it. Before he could speak, there was a noise from the living room.
Adolph staggered into the dining room, wobbling badly, eyes rheumy. His chest was convulsing and he was hacking from deep inside. Everyone’s eyes turned to him. Now with an audience, he spread his front paws, put his head down, and disgorged the entire contents of his stomach, beginning with a large, irritating plug of Grace McCoy’s Walnut/Yam casserole.
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