“So, I want to go over it one more time.”
Luigi twirled the red-and-yellow mushroom between his thumb and forefinger.
“We walk into a giant pipe because a passive aggressive mushroom whose breath reeks of hummus tells us there's a girl in a sack, and we need to … .”
“Princess,” Mario said, as he paced impatiently under a metallic block that, to his eyes at least, appeared to be floating.
“Yes. Sorry. Fine. Princess in a sack.” Luigi offered a mockingly apologetic bow. “The princess of mushrooms. And there are a bunch of angry mushrooms in between us and her, and I guess they're tired of serving their mushroom queen. Or something. I'm on the money so far, yeah?”
The elder plumber sat and tried not to rise to the bait. When Luigi got on a tear like this, Mario found it was best to let his little brother tire himself out. “That's right, 'uigi.”
“So now, we need a way to fight back, and your big idea is to eat yet another kind of mushroom. Not the passive-aggressive hummus-y kind or the angry kind, but another kind. And the basis for this plan is that you saw—was it a turtle, you said?” Luigi, playing the impatient professor, stood above Mario with eyebrows raised and waited for a response.
“… No. It just looked like a turtle.”
“OK.” Luigi rubbed his mustache in contemplation. “I'm just gonna go with the statistics here and assume it was actually a kind of mushroom that looked like a turtle. Either way, you said you saw it eat one of these red and yellow mushrooms and … get bigger?”
“It looked bigger to me, yeah.”
“So you're saying, this … .” Luigi extended the cap to just an inch from Mario's bulbous nose.
“Yes, Luigi.” Mario stared at his brother with all the gravitas he could muster. “I'm saying it's a magic mushroom.”
Luigi let the words hang in the air before tossing the fungus into Mario's lap. “Ladies and gentlemen, my brother: Andy Warhol.”
“Oh screw off, Luigi! Not that kind of magic! You know, like, magic-magic.”
“Oh, magic. You're right, in that case: I shouldn't be taking this lightly. So when you get large—and not high or poisoned at all, of course—what's the plan, precisely? You just gonna hope they'll be frightened off by the biggest Italian guy they've ever seen?”
“I figured I could … jump on 'em,” Mario said, almost under his breath.
“Oh great!” Luigi cawed, loud enough to draw the attention of a few more angry-type mushrooms. “Mr. Immaculate Heart of Mary High School third-string power forward is gonna defend us with his six-inch vertical leap? Is that really the plan?”
Mario realized with a grimace that he was now fully drawn into the argument he'd been working so hard to avoid. “So what's your plan, Luigi? You seem to have this all figured out. What's The Luigi Contingency?”
“The Luigi Contingency is: We go home.” Effortlessly, he slipped into the salesman-like rhythms he'd honed as a teenager working the Guess Your Weight booth at Coney Island. “We go home, maybe grab a couple of beers at Sunny's. Hey, maybe you even come by for dinner! Mama's making cannelloni tonight, I know she'd love to see you.”
Mario stared at his brother with disbelief.
“Luigi. I am, at this very moment, seated a few feet from a Venus Flytrap the size of a horse. I haven't had any coffee this morning. Oh, and a few minutes ago, a turtle threw hammers at me. Is this really, actually, no kidding the moment you're choosing to lay a guilt trip on me about visiting Mama?”
Unable to help himself, Luigi pressed on. “Well, Mario, it has been over a year now and … .”
Mario pushed himself to his feet and angrily brushed the brownish brick dust off his red-denim overalls.
“I'm done, Luigi. If you wanna give up on this, fine. Do it. The pipe's right there. Hey, it's Tuesday; maybe you'll get back in time for happy hour at the bowling alley. Me, I'm gonna eat this magical mushroom and see about a girl in a sack.”
Luigi chuckled as Mario began limbering up with some callisthenics.
“What if it's a bad trip though, Cheech? Won't you need me here to talk you down?”
“Cheech and Chong smoked pot, dummy,” Mario said breathlessly between toe-touches.
“So sorry, Mr. Leary!” Luigi stormed back towards the pipe. “I'll leave you to turn on and tune in peace.”
“Don't forget drop out, 'uigi!” Mario called after him. “That's the part you're so good at! Dropping out, if you even try in the first place.”
Luigi spun, jabbing a gloved finger at his brother's winded face, mid-jumping jack.
“You know, this is just you all over. Classic Mario. It's just like Mama is always sayi—”
“Nope!” Mario landed a jumping jack and abandoned his warm up. “I'm sorry Luigi, I can't do this. We're 100 million miles away from Brooklyn, I'll be damned if that woman gets to rule Fungus Town too.”
Luigi, desperate, searched for a new tact. “Why does it even have to be you, Mario? Some mushroom says he needs you to do him a solid, and all of a sudden you're shimmying down pipes and gobbling up hallucinogenics? Who says you have to be the guy? What, they don't have mushroom police?”
Mario sighed as he tightened his overall straps. “I don't know that I'm the guy, Luigi. But I know I have to try to be. At least this one time. And I can't keep letting you pull me back to Mama's apron every time you get a little scared I might really be doing something.”
Mario stared down his spotted snack and steadied his stomach.
“It's always like this, Mario,” Luigi shouted loud enough to close Mario's gaping jaw and leave the fungus uneaten. “You don't think, you don't listen, you just charge right ahead with the Mario parade and the rest of us gotta just hope we catch some of the candy.”
Luigi turned his back, ready for a good sulk, but Mario was having none of it.
“And what am I supposed to do, exactly? Am I supposed to stay in that dank apartment with you and mama just hoping for something better to come along? Counting the minutes till bingo night?”
“No, no, Mario, of course not. You just charge along in your own direction and act like you couldn't go backwards if you wanted to. It's why you and mama don't talk and it's why … .”
The words clogged in Luigi's throat.
“No, no, don't stop now, Luigi, you're on a roll! It's why Carla and I split up? It's why dad never calls? It's why gas is over four dollars a gallon? Say it, please! I gotta know what else I ruined.” Mario chucked the mushroom at his brother hard enough to hurt—if the projectile weren’t fungus. “You know, you've got it all figured out, Luigi. It's perfect. Why don't you and mom and dad and, hell, maybe even Carla just buy a nice duplex together, forget you ever met me and stay the hell outta my oxygen?”
Worried he might take a swing at his brother, Mario instead took a breath and stared into the distance. He couldn't be sure, but he thought he saw a grinning bullet streaking across the sky.
A few feet away, Luigi slouched against the pipe. He awkwardly shifted his weight as he let the words sink in.
“Look at me, Mario,” he stood full in front of his brother, hands open. “I'm a chronically single guy in his late 30s who spends every night managing his fantasy baseball league. You're … you're the best thing I got going.
Luigi closed the gap between him and his brother.
“Here,” Luigi placed the mushroom in Mario's gloved hand, saying his thousandth silent prayer to Saint Francis that his brother could go forward and stay put at the same time. “But if it kills you, I get first dibs on your boat.”
Mario stared at the the little fungus and allowed himself a couple of seconds to be moved and terrified. He ate, he waited.
… He grew.
Luigi watched with saucer eyes for a beat and then screamed like the Giants had just won the pennant, tossing his hat in the air as he ran circles around his rapidly-inflating brother.
“Mario! You're huge!” Luigi laughed wildly as he started on his second lap.
“I know!” Mario replied, a little uneasy. “Hey Luigi?”
“... I'm also really high.”
“I know! You gotta be at least 10 feet t—” Luigi’s celebration jerked to a stop mid-lap. “That's … that's not what you meant, is it?”
“Nope,” Mario looked perilously close to losing both his balance and grip on reality. “I'm … I'm actually freaking out a bit up here. Can you help me tell the real angry mushrooms from the ones I'm imagining?”
“Always, big brother. Always.”
Mario knelt to put a giant mitt gingerly on his brother's surprisingly rigid shoulder.
“Hey 'uigi? I love you.”
Luigi watched the curiously tender exchange his hallucinating brother was having with a question mark block and thought the exact same thing.