The school bus met the Cheese Man on old county 35. His wagon was ancient, like pictures I had seen of old carnival wagons, washed-out faded paint proclaiming EXOTIC CHEESES FROM AROUND THE WORLD, worn out letters spelling AM ZI G and AST UN ING still mostly visible through the grime and wear. A skeletal gray horse pulled the wagon slowly, looking like each step would be his last but always making just one more puff of dust when his hoof touched down.
The gravel road was barely wide enough for the school bus and the old man's wagon together, so Mr. Fox-- the bus driver-- had to creep slowly past. I could have reached my arm out the window and touched the side of the wagon. I probably would have too, until I saw the Cheese Man himself.
He wore a faded cloak that looked like it might have belonged to a magician that you see in those old painted posters in the lobby of the movie theater. It had once been a dark reddish color, like burgundy, and still had the gold trim around the edges in most places. He wore a wide-brim leather hat that shielded most of his face from the sun, but it was his eyes that caught my attention, a sharp steel-cutting blue color that locked onto mine and stared. I felt my heart stop beating as we slowly passed, and I couldn't look away.
It took an eternity for the bus to creep by, and just as we pulled past to the point where I could almost no longer see him, he touched the two fingers of his right hand against the brim of his hat as a sort of salute.
The world came back when Judy Jorgenson started yelling at Emmet Haley for hitting her with a wad of gooey spit. I felt the world slowly come back to life in a sort of watercolor haze, and those sharp eyes of the Cheese Man almost faded from memory.
By the time I got home, Pa was already making dinner: chicken and potatoes, and some stringy green beans that we had put up for the winter. I had chores to do before we ate, and if I didn’t finish them in time, I’d be in for a whuppin. With the storm coming, I had to bring in all of the laundry from the line and make sure all the shed doors were closed and latched. It was still better than bringing in the cows, and I really didn’t mind all that much. Plus, I got to drive the Chevy into the shed.
We didn’t have a TV yet, but Pa liked to listen to the radio. His favorite show was the Grand Ol’ Opry out of Nashville, and we listened to that over dinner and while I did homework.
The storm came, as sure as we knew it would. We didn’t get hit the hardest, but it was still plenty rough. There was hail, and we watched for tornadoes, but it was the wind that was the worst, and a smell that came with it like electricity and old socks. I went to bed that night with the thunder and wind, and wondered about the Cheese Man and his old horse and wagon, whether they had weathered the storm.
That night I dreamed.
I was running in the woods on a clear moonlit night, running away from something that I somehow both knew and couldn’t picture, but I knew I had to get away. There was an old abandoned cabin there, a small shack in the woods that had long since lost most of its roof to rot and decay, and I ran inside to try and hide.
There was a bedroom in the back, and a closet that still had most of a door left intact, so I crouched down and hid as best I could, and looked out through a crack at the open doorway of the main cabin.
A silhouetted figure popped into view, arms outstretched and holding onto either side of the doorframe. The figure sniffed the air, then looked right to where I was and slowly stepped forward. I pulled my head back and crouched in the corner even more, trying to make myself invisible, but the door flew open and a pair of strong, bony hands grabbed me by the collar and pulled me to my feet.
It was Pa, sort of. It was Pa, but madder than I had ever seen him, with a fire burning in his eyes. He pulled me close to his face and started yelling at me, but no words were coming out, just the silence and the sound of the wind. He seemed to get madder and madder that I didn’t understand him, and he began pulling me closer and closer to his face, his yelling getting more and more animated, but still no words coming out.
As he pulled me closer, the smell started, like rotting meat left to turn way too long, and the skin on his face started to peel and crack, maggots worming their way out of his flesh. I started screaming.
When I woke up, I was doused in sweat, the rotting smell still lingering in my nostrils. I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night. I didn’t dare.
When the bus got us to school the next day, there was a surprise. The Cheese Man’s wagon was parked in the vacant lot across the street, and he had opened up the side making a sort of theater, complete with velvet curtains and a small stage. The inside of the wagon was far different than the worn exterior would have led me to believe: the colors were rich and beautiful, the textures deep and rich, and the smell was wonderful. The Cheese Man himself was nowhere to be seen.
The first class warning bell rang, and we hurried inside. English was first with Mrs. Peterson, and she had us reading Robinson Crusoe. Everyone else didn’t seem to like it, but I thought it was okay, and I liked it better than Huck Finn that we had read over the winter. Today though, everyone seemed restless, even Mrs. Peterson. It was probably the smell of the cheese wafting in through the windows, because by the time the second bell rang, my stomach was growling something fierce.
Jimmy Kim pretty much hatched the plan to ditch third class, and me, him, and Randy Bristol decided to head over and check out the Cheese Man’s wagon. It’s not like we hadn’t ditched before, and besides, we were all starving.
Randy was the bravest of the three of us, and he was the one to knock on the door. Some sounds of movement inside, and the door opened; the Cheese Man stepped out into the sunlight, his faded robes still somehow looking regal despite their age and faded glory.
“Ah, young boys I see, come to sate your curiosity about exotic cheeses. So tell me, do you like what you see?”
I had expected his voice to be as dry and dusty as he was, but it was mellow and warm and powerful, and strangely relaxing.
He told us stories of far-off lands where the various cheeses were made, of the strange ways of the natives in some of the lands, one place where whole tribes of short dark-skinned men stood on one leg and walked for hours at a time in their dreams. Along with each story, he gave us each a taste of the cheese he was describing, and it was like tasting a different piece of the world each and every time.
We had lost track of time, and had been at the wagon for nearly two hours when Mr. Marsters came over to fetch us. He was as mad as I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen Mr. Marsters plenty mad, but the Cheese Man and his calm relaxing voice seemed to tame the anger right out of Mr. Marster’s red face, and with a shake of hands and a small gift of a roundish wheel of cheese, Mr. Marsters brought us back to the school.
There was a letter of course, and I had to have Pa sign it and bring it back the next day. I dreaded the ride home, because I knew I was gonna get a righteous whuppin.
When Pa read the letter, he started shaking. Not a mad kind of shaking, Pa didn’t shake when he got mad. It was more like he was scared. He told me to go up to my room, to shut the door and stay there. I did what he said, especially if it got me out of a whuppin, and I really wasn’t all that hungry anyway after all of the cheese. Maybe even a little sleepy.
I woke up to voices downstairs in the kitchen. It was Pa, arguing with somebody. Not yelling, but agitated, pleading. I snuck out of bed to listen, not quite being able to make out words, and then I heard the unmistakable voice of the Cheese Man, firm and solid, but with no warmth this time, like talking stone.
They spoke words that I couldn’t quite understand, like a different language that I had once known and forgotten. I didn’t know Pa could speak any other languages, and that surprised me more than anything.
The Cheese Man saw me then, his blue eyes latching with mine, and he beckoned me to come down the stairs. Pa turned to look, and I’ve never seen that kind of look on his face before, a combination of horror, grief, and sadness. I can only imagine it was the same kind of look that he had when we lost Ma, but I was too little to remember back then.
“It is his time,” said the Cheese Man.
Pa slumped into a chair then, defeated, looking older than I’d ever seen him look. Tears started to well up in his eyes, and Pa never cried. Ever. He looked at me for a minute, then stood up to give me a hug.
“I’m sorry Barnabas,” he said, then turned away and walked to his bedroom and closed the door.
I stood there for a full minute, trying to understand what was happening.
“Barnabas,” said the Cheese Man, “A good old family name.”
I turned to look at him and was drawn in again by those impossibly blue eyes.
The same color as my Mother’s eyes.
The same color as my own.
And then I knew.