We die in October.

As an upcoming minor surgical procedure date approaches, I can’t help worrying about what might go wrong. This year so far I’ve managed to beat cancer, leave cigarettes behind and dodge all the Breaking Bad finale spoilers going around. So a teensy, tiny half-hour procedure should be no sweat, right?

But with anesthesia there’s always a risk. And I’m feeling every inch of that risk this time, because in my family, we seem to have an eerie habit of shuffling off this mortal coil in the month of October.

For many, October is 31 sweet days of cool weather, Charlie Brown specials* and free candy. But for me and the other Ratliffs who have survived it, October is the month we remember the passing of my father, my grandfather and at least two uncles. It’s not a particularly morbid month—we don’t dress in black and mourn for weeks, or anything. I mean, there is still free candy to look forward to. But you can bet we are driving a little more slowly around sharp curves and, when possible, not scheduling any hospital visits, no matter how minor.

Until now.

It’s a weird thing to confront death. I mean, we all know we are going to die, eventually. But you don’t know it the same way you know it when you are half naked in a doctor’s office and she says the word “cancer”. This year, for the first time ever, I had to really think about what it means to stop living and I did not like it one bit.

My whole life, up to this point, I have approached every crossroads and tackled every dilemma using a “worst-case scenario” filter. When I’ve been unsure whether to take a new job, move across country, date a guitar player or worse,** I made myself imagine all the possible conclusions:

“What if my new job falls apart?”

“What if I hate the new city I move to?”

“What if the guitar player uses the word ‘tunes’ when he means ‘songs’ and I have to murder him?”

This process helps me determine if I can live with the consequences, even if the outcome is the worst. If so, I am free to move forward with whatever terrible decision I am about to make. I’m never afraid to fail, because I know that whatever happens, I’ll be okay.

Until now!

My own mortality was one “worst-case scenario” I could not win. I literally cannot live with the consequences of my own death. I will not be okay with “whatever happens!”

(For the record, YOU’LL be fine. So relax. The world will keep turning and life will go on for you and for everyone—except me. I’m not saying you won’t be sad. Obviously you will mourn the profound loss of me with lots of booze and sex, and then go on to compose a concept album about me, or write a biopic screenplay or one of those “oral history” nonfiction books that are so popular now. I’m just spit-balling, here. You do what you have to do to mark the passage of the Internet’s foremost authority+ on Keith Gordon movies and vegetarian casserole recipes. Just know that you are a survivor in this scenario.)

I’m just having a hard time dealing with the fact that there’s a situation I will absolutely have to face, that I have zero control over, and with which I am totally not cool. And with no afterlife in my immediate post-death future, I’ve got no way to turn my mortal frown upside down. I can’t find a way to put a silver lining around this sad cloud.

Bummer!

I guess I’m mostly worried that I will miss out on something. I hate that! Remember in the seventh grade when the cool kids had their first co-ed party? At that one girl’s house with a swimming pool? And after sunset, when it got a little chilly, the party moved into the basement? And her parents were upstairs watching TV, so it kind of turned into a makeout party? And you had to hear about it third-fucking-hand because no one invited you? Because you are the new kid (with glasses!) that no one even knows, much less invites to a potentially scandalous co-ed seventh-grade makeout pool party?

Well death is like that, but forever.

Frankly, I don’t want to go until we ALL go. I mean, I know it’s selfish, but I kind of hope to live to see the end of the world. When that tidal wave hits, or that alien death ray explodes the Empire State Building, or that monkey flu becomes a bird flu becomes a people flu, I will surrender, peacefully, knowing that at least you guys won’t be having any fun without me.

Or maybe I will not surrender and somehow survive with Jake Gyllenhaal in a library, burning stupid law books and keeping the ice and the wolves at bay! Either option is cool with me!

Here’s the option that is NOT cool with me: having some weird fluke reaction to anesthesia during a routine procedure and dying on the operating table in the month of October. That is the-opposite-of-Fonzie not cool with me. If death in October is the well-traveled road, I’m happy to trek the dirt path on the other side of the fork. Even if it’s merely delaying the inevitable, I’ll take the scenic route, thank you.

So I submit this article as a way to jinx death. With this piece, I hope to negate the weird could-have-been of my dying in the same month as two generations of Ratliffs before me. I’m going to look Croaktober in the face, shake it’s hand and tell it to have a nice life. Then I’ll knock on wood three times and see y’all in the recovery room.

Otherwise—if something does happen to me next week—this post is going to get sooooooo many hits! Right, you guys?!! You know you are going to leave comments below about how crazy it is that I predicted it all right here, and how totally cool I seemed, and how you WISH you had invited me to your seventh-grade co-ed makeout pool party. And then you are going to “”Like” this on Facebook and share the link in an email to your mom and your best friend with a note about how you should get together more often, because “life is short” or whatever.

That is totally something you would/will do!

My advice is: don’t wait. Do all that stuff now! Send this link to your mom and make plans to hang out! Invite me to your makeout pool party! Life can be short! Carpe diem, for reals!

“Don’t forget-to-Like on Facebook tomorrow what you can remember-to-Like on Facebook today!”
–President John F. Kennedy

Most importantly, do not wait until November; especially if you are related to me.

 

*”The Charlie Brown Specials” is totally my new band!)
**Keyboard players. (Just kidding, ‘Boardies!)
+Flagrant exaggeration!

In Alba, Italy’s rain, my hair flattens wet against my skull. Hugging the shopfronts of Via Vittorio Emanuele, I see a white triangular peak in the distance. It could be anything—a downed mountain bowing to commune with this street, the cobblestone river that carved it—except, glowing with rain, it looks to be made of canvas. I know.

I know. It is October. This is Alba. Simple arithmetic: October + Alba = Truffle Fair. Math never smelled so good. I thank the wet heavens for this day off. I am in Italy’s Piedmont region to work the seasonal wine harvest, sleeping in a tent in the garden of the Il Gioco dell’Oca bed-and-breakfast. But today, I am relieved of my grape-picking duties, and the white truffle beckons.

The truffle is an underground fungus of the tuber genus (some call it an underground mushroom), found beneath the bases of oak, linden, poplar, elder, willow, and wild hazelnut, where they establish a symbiotic relationship with the tree. They enjoy a cool soil about eight to ten inches below the earth’s surface. The truffle’s roots are as strong as its perfume. They are incredibly thick and intricate, surrounding the “fruit” or “gleba” with a cortex called a “peridio.” These characteristics vary greatly among the varieties of truffle, distinguishing each gem to the scrutinizing eye of the truffle hunter.

Truffles themselves are surrounded by legend. A famous Italian tale from the Piedmont regionclaims that truffles make their homes in the graves of dissipated gnomes and that their often-irregular shape is a result of the heartbeats of soon-to-be-sleeping plants. Truffle hunters, or “trifolau,” have always had their quirks and secrets, and their own fair share of lore. Often disguised as a man and his dog strolling an autumn hill at night, the trifolau are reputed to walk with lighter steps than the rest of us, and speak only with necessary words. The truffle-sniffing dog or “tabui” is calmer at night (hence, the typical night hunt); also, the night protects the trifolau and tabui from the imploring eyes of others. (Pigs can also be used to detect truffles, but dogs are preferred since they are less likely to eat the reward).

This peak in the distance is the demure cap to Alba’s famed truffle tent. Polar, bearish, the fur on the back of my neck stands up.

Soon, I am at its entrance and, ducking my head like a linebacker preparing to unleash a bone-crunching tackle, I dip my white face into the seas and come up with a salmon, flapping into U, inverted-U, U, inverted-U in my jaws.

Umbrellas woosh open and closed around me, people entering, people leaving. What an indulgent invention the umbrella seems in a tent so connected with the soil—with these personal hand-held awnings, nobody gets wets, and in turn, nobody dries off.

I shudder from the waist up as a dog shedding a rain-sheen onto a business suit or two, and survey this white vacuum of aroma and taste and commerce. Row after row of truffle vendors chat with a clamorous array of buyers, displaying their wares that they dug from deep earth oak tree bases with the aid if their sniffing dogs. And now, these black and white delicacies, the essence of earth and epitome of fungus, lie platter-lit under glass containers, exhumed by the merchants to be held, like their children, to the noses of probable patrons. This is the second coming through a kaleidoscope.The dirty gray rock-like truffles, so much like figs, play their cards close to their chests until the glass container is lifted and aroma spills the room like oil.

There is something in the contained stoicism of a red-bearded man in the tent’s west corner that makes me want to buy a truffle from him. He, unlike the operatically effusive majority, seems to share the wise hermit nature of the truffle itself. He knows. That’s all.

I walk to him, the sea of people and their downward-pointing umbrellas rushing from my heels like jet smoke. His red face, unearthed just this morning perhaps, spreads in a bread-and-butter grin.Wordless, he reaches for his platter, left hand bracing its bottom, right hand poised on the container lid. This is potential energy as it should be. Two steps later, the lid is off, the sweet white truffle smell of soil and mushroom, corn husk and asphalt gift-wraps itself bowless over the back of my head, grabs me my the ears like a schoolyard bully. I am thrown face first into this silver platter’s playground dirt. This is not fair. I’m telling on you. I want my mom.

In what sounds to me like a blubbering cry, I ask, “Quanto per uno?”

He waves his chapped hand over the pile, indicating that I choose my favorite. Always the champion of the underdog, I choose the second one from the top, a battered golf ball of a tartufo boasting the elegance of the clubs that hit it. Red-Beard, with a thumb and forefinger, lifts it from its family litter.It wriggles and wags like a puppy. The next thing I know, it’s in my hand. Its touch is gold and scab, bottlecap and skipping stone.

Once a white truffle touches your skin, a strange symbiosis ignites. A purchase is inevitable, even for those with a psychotic regard for self-denial. Rough, dimpled, irregular, geologic, its bloom waits for contact with a truffle shaver and a quail egg, a plate of ravioli, a loin of venison. I’ve never felt the stirrings of fatherhood before, but…

And just like that, he picks it from my palm as a poppy, weighs it, and writes £80,000 on a slip of blue paper. Forty dollars for an entire white truffle—worth about $1,800/lb. in the U.S.—forty dollars for a tongue’s meditation stone that will span a week’s worth of dinners. I want to weep. I want to pray. I want to, and do, hand him the money, and he proceeds to wrap the sweet baby in a fan of white tissue paper, then places it into a tiny paper bag. I hold the bag to my face and breathe as if hyperventilating, as a horse licking the first or last oats from its feed-bag.

Then Red-Beard, perhaps as penance for his namesake’s pirating, perhaps due to my treasuring of his ware, removes a plum-sized black truffle from another platter, wraps it, and hands it to me without so much as a “Prego.” I match his silence, my hands go numb, my hair most assuredly turning white.I am in a place where the purchase of a white truffle gets a black truffle thrown in for free. This place is Alba, Italy. $19.95 for twenty steak-knives be damned. I reach my bagless hand to Red-Beard and he shakes it, his palm rough as cornflakes, eyelids drooping nearly to the corners of his mouth.

Retreating to the tent’s entrance, the other merchants thrusting, then cradling their truffles under my nose, offering their perfume, my eyes begin to water, my breath shortens, my head spins in a wild vertigo. This is sensory overload at its best, the ripe fungal blossom of the tent tattooing itself into my nostrils. I need to take a breath of rain.

And in a step, stutter, step, I am back in it, iron pencil sky relentless in its spewing. I tuck the truffle bag into my windbreaker’s heart-pocket and make for the bus back to Il Gioco dell’Oca, where the kitchen will hopefully be empty, and my tent, most certainly, saturated.