By Teralyn Rose Pilgrim
“I bought pizza to eat while we study,” said Julie. She opened a box of steaming pizza with relish as if she were offering him a special treat.
Jimmy tried not to grimace as he picked up a piece and felt it go limp in his hand. Julie stuffed a large bite in her mouth and savored the bite with glee. “Mmm,” she said.
I like this girl, Jimmy reminded himself. I’m not going to offend her by refusing her pizza.
He took a bite and a long string of rubbery cheese slid off the bread and onto his shirt, leaving strings of red goop all down his front. Embarrassed, he decided to leave the blood-sauce crust naked and stuffed the cheese into his mouth. It was like chewing on a ball of slimy rubber bands.
As he formed the cheese into a digestible paste, he tried not to think of his 3rd-grade field trip to the cheese factory.
He remembered him and his classmates peering over the railing above the equipment. They ooo-ed and ahh-ed over the stainless-steel vats of stirring milk. The teacher led them along the rail to the packaging area where blocks of yellow cheddar zoomed through a narrow terminal. They jerked to a stop in front of a worker and a machine that wrapped the cheese in plastic and sucked out the air with a gasp and a click.
The woman was old enough to be the wicked witch of the west. She wore no hairnet, so Jimmy could see her charcoal-gray hair shine from a thick layer of grease. He recoiled when he saw the same grease covering her face from the root of her damp hair, past her crooked green teeth, and plastered down her neck.
She didn’t wear any gloves, but handled the cheese with her bare, wrinkled hands. She wiped sweat off her forehead with the back of her wrist. Then to his horror, she scratched her head and put her now grease-soaked fingers back on the block of cheese. No one but Jimmy noticed a single strand of hair get caught under her jagged nail. The strand flowed in the air as it followed her finger to the cheese as she pushed it through the machine.
Jimmy knew the same women hadn’t touched the cheese that was on his pizza – well, he thought he knew, but he couldn’t really be sure – but whenever he saw cheese, he imagined it coated in hair grease. He thought of this when he saw melted cheese glisten with wetness.
He tried to swallow the huge gob of mozzarella in his mouth, insisting to himself that it wasn’t filled with strands of old lady hair, or jagged fingernails, or crooked teeth. The cheese got caught in the back of his throat and he gagged.
“Are you okay?” asked Julie.
Jimmy forced the mouthful down with a vengeance. He put the rest of his piece down, unable to eat anymore.
“My stomach doesn’t feel the best,” he mumbled. “The pepperoni is too strong and it made me feel nauseous.” He thought he sounded lame, but Julie rubbed his arm and gave him a look of sympathy.
“I have some spaghetti in the fridge. Would you like that instead?”
Jimmy sighed with relief as she went to the kitchen. He picked up his math book and heard the refrigerator door open.
“Would you like parmesan cheese on your spaghetti?” she asked.
Jimmy cleared his throat. “I mean, no thank you.”