The Big Cheese

My dad owned a fondu restaurant when I was younger. It was called Big Cheese. Everyone had to wear those fake cheeseheads like Green Bay Packers fans. Even the cooks and dishwashers. I started out as a dishwaher but was promoted to server on my 17th birthday. I liked the job because I made tips and would always go out and spend them on paisley clothes on the weekend. I loved paisley for some reason.

The restaurant was always struggling before I started working there. But then, for some reason, things picked up. There was actually word-of-mouth happening—and this was in an oppressed factory town where no one said a thing to anyone. You were lucky to get a smile at the barbershop.

I started to think this buzz was due to my father’s frequent trips to Nova Scotia, where he would personally buy huge boxes of exotic cheese to be delivered to the restaurant. “This is the key to our new life,” he told me, carressing a forty-pound block of waxed something. “This shit is the motherfucking key!”

This was around the time he started swearing and yelling a lot and wearing rings on all his fingers.

It was sometime around Christmas of that year when it started to dawn on me. One family ordered a fondue pot full of something called Nordic Swiss Calcutta. We served our pots of cheese with breadsticks, vegetables, sausages, or any variety of dipping foods. The mother and father of this family quickly comandeered the Calcutta and instructed me to bring out a different kind for their pimply twin girls. “Something less intense,” the parents laughed. I brought out the Smoked Hickory Feta for the girls and they all seemed satisfied. The father started whispering something to the mother. The girls poked their sticks of bread into the murky pot and lifted them out, sloppy blobs bit by teeth and smeared with cheap lipstick. I stayed in the kitchen for a few minutes, talking to Joey, the headbanger cook, and watching the dining room from a safe distance.

“Judas Priest is the greatest,” Joey told me. “You wanna borrow their tape?”

“Sure,” I said. I was distracted and bored and trying to concoct some fantasy involving the twin girls that I could use later when I got home, or maybe when I had to eventually go back to the walk-in freezer.

“They’re the Beatles of this generation,” Joey said. “The Beatles in leather, dude.”

I forgot what he was even talking about. I went out to check on the family of four. The father was still whispering to his wife. As I got closer though, I realized he was sticking his tongue in her ear. She had her eyes half-closed and was fully enjoying it. I saw a spackle of cheese congealing on her chin. “Go out and play,” the father told the girls. His left hand had lifted to her chest and was clawing aggressively there. The girls were glad to be excused. They too were suddenly alive and boiling with passion. They bolted through the front door and threw themselves into a pile of snow. I heard one of them say, “Pretend I’m Jesus.”

My dad had me come to his office the next day. He wanted to give me the “fingerfucking lowdown” as he called it.

He pulled out a map and dramatically crumpled it into a ball. He threw it in the tin wastebasket and threw a lit match in. Nothing happened. He tried again. Still, I wasn’t sure what he was trying to do. “Hold a goddamn second,” he told me, and exited the office. He came back five minutes later with a can of lighter fluid. He took off his dress shirt, flexing his tank-topped form, and doused the shirt with the smelly liquid. He lit it on fire and threw it in the trash with the map. “Nova fucking Scotia,” he said. He looked at me hard.

“I d-don’t understand,” I stammered.

His skin flushed red and he shouted, “Daddy’s a drug dealer!” His ringed hand formed a fist and he pounded the top of his heavy oak desk. “Most of the cheese we serve to the customers is from downtown Cleveland, but do you think I can say that to Mr. Nigel Restaurant Reviewer? Hell no! They come to our place to escape. They want to think of Nova Scotia or cranberry manchego puree or hazelnut German cheddar or some other shit like that. Do you know where those names come from? My frickin’ hat! I write down a bunch of fluffy words and let my blind hands create a menu. Ha! It’s the damn magic mushrooms that make people come back for more.”

I rubbed my eyes, thinking for a moment that I was dreaming. The flames were still going in the trash. “Are the mushrooms from Nova Scotia?” I asked.

“Jesus, no!” he spat. “And it’s not just mushrooms. It’s cocaine, marijuana, and some new stuff called Prozac.” Finally, he stuck his leg in the garbage and started stomping out the fire. Ashes and smoke billowed around him like the devil.

I stepped back, found the door, stumbled out, eyes watering and brain hurting. I was never the same after that day. I knew dad’s thinly-veiled drug empire would be found out soon. He was losing his cool and I don’t think he even knew where Nova Scotia was.

My innocence was squashed that day. Melted, as if in a pot full of cheese. Never to return. Never fucking ever.

(above text by Kevin Sampsell)

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