ANDREW F. SULLIVAN
“The world don’t want you to do that.”
Cheese Watkins’ daddy says this through two inches of Plexiglas, holding a sawed-off up to the small gap where the money is supposed to change hands. Cheese slowly pulls his hand away from the alarm buzzer. His daddy nods, shakes his head, nods again.
“All the cash, boy.”
Cheese waits for another customer to come into the Gas’N’Go. He waits for Mr. Cronolopoulos to come back from vacation and take over the night shift again. He waits for a star somewhere in this galaxy to explode and end all human life, but none of this happens.
“Come on now.”
The money is mainly in twenties. Cheese Watkins’ daddy licks his thumb and counts it right there at the window. He doesn’t even look at Cheese, just counts the money. Cheese’s momma was right about the old man. He is a cancer. Not like the horoscope crab, no, more like the one inside her belly, burning right through it like a dry fire. Like an old coal gone hot when no one was looking. Cheese is a Gemini, so he is always looking for his other half in the mirror.
“The world wants to tell you there ain’t no time to live for yourself, son. The world is here to convince you that you owe it something. All I am sayin’ is you don’t.”
Cheese pushes the button because his daddy named him Cheese, but the old man is already gone.
It is not the first time someone has pointed a gun at Cheese, not even the first time someone related to him has tried to rob the Gas’N’Go. Last winter, Cousin Dennis fell down coming through the door with a crowbar in his hands. He had a Halloween mask on so tight he couldn’t see—a fox. After he knocked over a full display of washer fluid, Cheese told him to get out before the cops showed up. Dennis left a wet trail all the way out to the woods behind the store.
“And how tall do you think he was?”
The police know how tall, they saw the video, but they wanna make Cheese dance.
The officer nods once. “Yeah, you wanna estimate that though?”
The officer nods again. Cheese called Mr. Cronolopoulos, left a message. The yelling would happen tomorrow whenever he checked his phone.
“Did he look familiar, this man? You recognize him?”
Cheese gets to make a choice. It does not happen often. His momma chooses what they are going to eat whenever he is home, even when he’s the one cooking. Mr. Cronolopoulos chooses his shifts. Even Diana, well, she chose the day where they stopped dating. Christmas.
“No, I don’t think I ever seen him before.”
It makes Cheese feel a little warmer.
Cheese’s daddy is stupid, but by choice, not by birth.
“He could have built a bridge, you know that? He was always buildin’ dams and things in the woods, always working on some new project. That’s why he never finished school.”
Mr. Cronolopoulos says he wants to take the money out of Cheese’s pay, but the corrupt, bullshit, stuffed shirt government won’t let him, so Cheese is instead going to be stuck on night shift for another month. Someone else will try to rob the Gas’N’Go, but Cheese will push the button right away. It’s not that hard to push a button.
“You know, he could have built a church if he really wanted.”
Cheese’s momma knows that her ex-husband is going to spend that money fast. He is not one for nuance, not one for plans. The gun was probably stolen, something he slapped together ten minutes before he stumbled in there. A rare moment of genius.
“One time, one time I seen him pull a whole shelf of Cokes and stuff them in the bottom of the grocery cart, and nobody even looked when we rolled out the store.”
Cheese nods, pulls up a chair beside her in the living room. They are eating pork and beans because it is cold and the food keeps them warm. They are watching Star Wars again because Mrs. Watkins has a big crush on that Harrison Ford.
“Well, where am I supposed to find him?”
Cheese waits for an answer, but she won’t tell him. The man is a cancer, the worst thing that ever happened to her life, but she won’t give him up, not even to her son. When the power to the whole neighbourhood goes out, Cheese finishes the movie for her with his words, even making the pew-pew noises for the proton torpedoes and Chewbacca’s final roar at the medal ceremony.
When Cheese goes to sleep, he dreams about his daddy knocking at the window, asking his boy why he got two faces and why he can’t decide on one.
Cheese does not need his momma’s help.
“Did you call my mom’s house last night?” Diana says through the Plexiglas. She pops gum between her teeth—mint, fresh, sugarless. She is watching her figure. She is waiting for spring.
The only night Diana ever came home to his place, Cheese’s momma decided to clean the bathroom sink. She left a hair ball floating in the toilet for Diana to find. She told Cheese it was an accident, but he didn’t answer. One of his faces twitched a lot that night, but the other one stayed steady because everything was always turning out this way. Everything rigged wrong.
“Well, someone keeps calling my mom and asking about me.”
“I don’t know nothin’ about it.”
She dumped him on Christmas, but she didn’t keep the presents. She wasn’t cruel. She made sure he still had the receipts. Diana just couldn’t be dating a boy with hairballs. A boy with a momma who would knock on the door and ask if they had been making room for the Holy Spirit. A boy who was twenty eight and still working at Gas’N’Go.
He wasn’t supposed to be a boy anymore.
“Mom says the voice sounds just like you.”
That is what she told him. Sometimes Cheese would touch the spot where she’d branded him with those words. Wasn’t supposed to be a boy anymore. And he would say she was right into the dark of his bedroom, but quiet so his momma wouldn’t hear the noise.
“Well, it ain’t me.”
When Diana leaves, she slams the door behind her, not because she’s mad, but because she likes the sound. She likes to leave something behind, which is why she used to suck his neck until it lit up purple. Cheese knows where his daddy is and it is somewhere with a phone.
Aldous Gardens was abandoned when someone finally dug up a report about the asbestos processing plant that used to stand on the same ground, right down by the lake. People started calling it Asbestos Gardens and Cheese’s momma made them move, along with everybody else, but there are still houses down there, a lot of property that people still own but are afraid to visit.
Cheese’s daddy would take things from the house when Cheese was at school and momma was at work in the hospital filing room. He would take things and try to see what he could get in return. He would take things and say he misplaced them. When they moved, he started going into other houses, taking wires, taking metal plates, taking pieces from everybody.
It didn’t take long for the cops to catch on, and so he started taking everyone’s time too. Taking time with court dates and jail visits and the occasional deposition.
“I know you’re in here, old man.”
His daddy named him Cheese because his momma almost died pushing out the baby and no one else was around to stop him. She was passed out for hours, covered in blood and mucus and the wing of the Angel of Death as she liked to say. His daddy named him Cheese because he thought they could change it later. And then it became a matter of pride when no one else got the joke, when no one laughed. They all stared at him, said he was a fool. Cheese’s daddy did not want to explain himself. He laughed in their faces. They didn’t understand the long history, the culture of the word, he said. They didn’t see it stretched across cultures, across worlds.
“You always been clever like me, Cheese.”
And so the boy was named Cheese, and that was that. Twenty eight years of having every single fart blamed on you becomes a burden. Eventually, you might start to resent it.
“What did you spend the money on, daddy?”
Usually, it was Gordons. Sometimes it was a case of beer. On occasion, a BBQ to cook up steaks he’d hide in his coat before bolting out the supermarket doors. Sometimes it was an X-Wing model delivered to the house with same day delivery. The attic in the new place was full of these deliveries. Cheese did not tell momma about them.
“I didn’t spend it yet, I can tell you that. Well, not all of it at least. Some of it.”
Cheese’s daddy is sitting on a couch in one of the old houses. The sawed-off from the other night is on the floor and Cheese can see that it is empty. It was probably empty the whole time.
“I want it back.”
Cheese’s daddy laughs.
“I bet you do, I bet you do. Help me up.”
The old man is frail, his eyes looking everywhere even as he tries to talk to Cheese.
“I buried it down by the water. We gonna go for a walk, boy.”
They start walking. After a few steps, its easier for Cheese to just carry him along the way.
The waves are quiet, but Cheese decides to yell.
“Why you calling up Diana? Why you givin’ her shit? Why you even know her number?”
Cheese’s daddy just rocks back and forth on the rocks, his one eye trying to keep track of Cheese, the other fixed out on the water.
“You know I used to try and block up all the creeks in the woods, try and starve the lake.”
Cheese stomps back and forth with his hands deep in his pockets, huffing against the cold. Mr. Cronolopoulos keeps calling Cheese’s phone, but he turns it to silent.
“That sounds pretty dumb.”
“I wanted to see if you could lower the water level. Dam up the creeks, see what’s down there. The water is too deep for anyone to really know.”
The money is wet in Cheese’s pocket, three hundred dollars his daddy had tucked under a rock. Cheese’s daddy used to have better hiding spots. Inside a broken toaster. Inside an unplugged ceiling fan. Always meshed with the wires of something no one wanted anymore, something he could count on being ignored until it wasn’t there at all.
“I called her because she missed out on a good thing like you, Cheese.”
Cheese grabs a stone and throws it.
“Like that can matter.”
“What kind of girl leaves a boy on Christmas?”
“The kind that wants to make herself clear, Daddy. Kind of hard to misinterpret that.”
Cheese’s daddy goes quiet while Cheese keeps throwing rocks.
“You gonna call the police?”
Another rock into the lake.
“You gonna tell them it was me?”
Cheese shakes his head.
“You just here to teach me a lesson then? Like you did with Cousin Dennis?”
After Cousin Dennis’ failed robbery, he woke up to Cheese standing over him wearing a Chewbacca mask, holding a piece of firewood over his head. The other face, like his momma called it, wanted Cheese to make a point. He didn’t forget a thing. He didn’t let anyone slide.
“Well, then what the fuck you want Cheese?”
Diana had made it very clear that Christmas morning. She told him she could not wait around. She told him she was tired of being patient. She told him she did not want to end up like his mother and he did not disagree. When you break a boy on Christmas, he will understand just want it means. You make an impression. You make yourself clear.
“I want you to leave. I want you to stop sending shit to the house. I want you to stop trying to send her love letters or poems or whatever other shit you try and slip under the door.”
“I ain’t done none of that—“
“I’m not done. I’m not done, daddy. She can’t stop. She can’t stop and I don’t know why, but she is not giving up on you. Even though you already done it for yourself. I know that. You know that. You gave up a good long time back.”
Cheese’s daddy tries to scramble to his feet, loses his footing on the rocks, falls to his knees.
“So you gotta make a choice. You gotta make a choice today.”
Cheese’s daddy won’t look at him, forces his eyes to focus on the water instead.
“I was building those dams so they couldn’t tell me what to do anymore, that’s why. I did it because the world wanna say what you can and can’t do. It’ll take its course, it’ll keep going. Even a dam won’t last. But sometimes, you can say what the water will do for a little while.”
Cheese runs his thumb over the bills in his pocket, counting them out slowly.
“And I’m letting you do that here. You go. Somewhere else. And you don’t come back.”
Cheese’s daddy does not say anything. Cheese takes out the money, puts it back in his daddy’s pocket. The old man starts throwing rocks, but they can barely reach the water.
“I need you to give me the money.”
Gas’N’Go is robbed once every two or three months. Cheese is used to this by now. He can always see them sweating. Anxious and upset—usually they are on something they can’t afford.
“Come on, man, just gimme the money.”
Cops found the body down by the lake a few weeks later. Animal had got to it. Cheese kept it from his momma for a few days before breaking the news. He wanted to make sure she could handle the facts. Cheese had to re-enact most of Empire before she would settle down, his Darth Vader breathing soothing her in the dark until she got quiet and he could go to sleep.
Eventually, the old man had to leave. He chose the route around the dam.
“Because I said so, you dumb fuck.”
The kid is skinny, his arms are shaking and the revolver is a rusted chunk of grease and metal. Mr. Cronolopoulos is supposed to start working the night shift next week.
“You don’t want to do this, you know?” Chees says. “World don’t want you to do this.”
Cheese pushes the button under the counter with his middle finger. He can see both faces in his Plexiglas reflection smiling back at him. The kid doesn’t see it. He’s somewhere else.
“I don’t care what the fucking world wants,” the kid barks and Cheese smiles. The kid is waiting for something to happen, waiting for Cheese to crumple. “I don’t give a fuck!”
“I know,” Cheese says and starts to laugh. “But the world don’t always agree.”
The kid pulls the trigger. All Cheese hears is a click.