by Edmund Barker
“Cheese is milk’s leap towards immortality.”
—Clifton Fadiman, radio personality
The day I spilled the creamer on my family’s coffee table was the day I was swallowed up by the enormity of the universe.
I remember it well. Six years old, running down the stairs into the den, my elbow bumped the pitcher my dad was using with his joe. It was a horrible, slow process; the thick cream oozing out of its cylinder and carpeting the wooden surface. It was unlike any milk I’d ever seen, free of the reassuring translucence I usually associated with dairy products. No, this cream was dense beyond words, a miasma of plasma devoid of any opacity that would let me see the table. It was an endless void, scarcely a fluid at all, spread across the flat wood and slipping down onto the rug. There was an endless absence of color, as blank and featureless as purgatory. My eyes were drawn into it in a process that felt like it took no time at all and millions of years simultaneously. My broken child mind could comprehend nothing but the nothingness spread out before me.
I fell to the floor and found myself unable to speak for weeks.
It is, then, no surprise that I chose the line of study I did. The ambiguous hand of the dairy specter has always cast its shadow over my psyche, molding me in subtle ways. As a teenager, I would hide curds and whey in my socks after my parents deemed my hobby too obsessive and read the cheese theorists of the mid-19th century until the early hours of the morning. I had to get to the bottom of my dairy conundrums by any means, and knowledge was my weapon when entering this strange unknown.
Or so I thought.
Yet I find myself where I am today, squeegeeing olive oil onto a slice of cheap plastic made to imitate a shade of earthen gold.
Whenever I walk in the door of the office, people bow their heads in respect. I’m the one who makes the whole enterprise possible; without my delicate touch applied to slices of artificial cheese, the mock hamburgers we used in our photoshoots would be utterly unappetizing. The livelihoods of thousands of people in the company depend on my consummate professionalism.
No slipping up, no cutting corners, nothing that would threaten the desirability of the sandwich—that was my creed. So long as I lived by it, I would find pride in my work.
But it never came. Instead was the constant, gnawing sense in the back of my head that I had forsaken my passions.
My search for authenticity in cheese had been left by the wayside, tossed away in favor of preparing fake dressings for plastic buns.
I snapped out of my malaise when someone rapped on my shoulder—it was Derek, the lighting specialist for the lettuce.
“The secret meeting’s in five minutes,” he whispered. “Don’t be late this time.”
Derek was new, and didn’t understand the value of keeping a secret meeting secret. In the hall outside my closet-sized office, the rest of the staff were shuffling toward the elevators, avoiding eye contact and putting on their mauve hoods.
“Just give me a second,” I told Derek, putting on the hood of my ceremonial robes.
The basement boiler room beneath our office/photo studio was a neglected place, where the light fixtures in the asbestos-pockmarked ceiling didn’t even have bulbs. That was not a problem to management, though, as they used scores of blood-colored candles to light this subterranean chamber during our weekly rituals. There were dozens of us in a circle down there, shrouded in identical red cloaks and hoods—but I could make out Phil, first-floor Tracy, second-floor Tracy, and Janine from human resources under their cowls. As upper management passed around a bovine skull for us to drink life glug from, Zephyr and Jedediah lit the incense stands and led us in a short recitation of the Primal Tongue. Our makeshift circle surrounded a foldable table and plastic chairs, where the five members of the board of directors wore gold carnival masks above their name tags. As Jedediah spread entrails from a plastic bucket onto the table surface, the director sitting in the middle spoke.
“Oh gods of generosity,” he said, raising his arms, “You have guided us with such wisdom in the past. Through your advice we have crushed our competition, cornered our market, and improved employee satisfaction. Tell us, oh gods, what should we do to make sure we stay in the black this financial quarter?”
Out of his robe pocket he pulled a Magic 8-Ball and, with a mix of deliberation and haste, shook it up and plonked it into the entrails with a squish. The words “TRY AGAIN LATER” floated up to the glass.
“Now is not the hour for wisdom!” shouted another board member at the table. “Return to your work, the divination stone demands so!”
A collective groan was faintly audible among the staff—we had delayed lunch break to get all prepared in our garments for yet another spirit session, and now it turned out it was all for nothing. A bored Janine started chewing some bubblegum and went upstairs, soon followed by the rest of us, our minds all ruminating on what to get from the cafeteria.
Almost thirty minutes and some change later, I was back in my cubicle, my breath smelling of gouda. The poster looking down from the wall at me read “TRANSNATIONOMICS KNOWS THAT YOU CAN IMPROVE YOUR SALES RECORD” in all caps over a peaceful photo of the Rocky Mountains.
It had been a whole year since the TransNatioNomics buyout, when our humble little prop food company became part of a much higher economic purpose. One of the first effects of being purchased by a multilevel marketing firm was felt by our whole workforce, with everyone of every job duty conceivable being asked to make sales calls several times a week. Nestling the phone into my shoulder, I began the speech I knew so well.
“Hi! You might not know me, but I’m a friend,” I said with cheer. “I managed to triple my income last year just by buying and selling plastic food props. It’s that simple! You can become a distributor from your own home and join in on this supply chain—”
The person at the other end of the line hung up. Couldn’t blame them.
I leaned back in my chair and sighed. First I give up my dreams of real cheese for the plastic alternative, and now I’m hocking those same plastic food products to strangers.
No one said life after grad school was quite like this.
I mean, honestly, all the cult stuff that began after the buyout wasn’t so bad. It was only once a week, usually a small sacrifice or a bit of orgiastic writhing to try and keep things loose. But the sales calls were a headache throughout the week—hours upon hours of regurgitating the same pitch to nameless idiots.
I poked my head into the hall to see who was doing what.
Second-floor Tracy was pushing first-floor Tracy around in an office chair, and Phil was lining up a golf shot on the soft green of the carpet.
Since bolstering the TransNatioNomics pyramid took up so much of our lives, we knew we had to find moments of joy increasingly inside of office walls rather than outside of them.
I watched like a fish from behind its glass as my coworkers celebrated in the hall. I would have joined them, sharing in their brief respite of human contact outside of the workload, if not for one thing.
I knew we had a half a minute left until lunch break was over, and I wasn’t about to be demerited again.
Sure enough, out of the elevator stepped Mr. Kress, still wearing his sacred robe but unbuttoned to show the glossy name tag of superiority on his blazer.
“Heads up, people!” he barked. “We need an increase in successful sales calls of about 40% from some of you, and it won’t happen while you’re on break! Back to it!”
There was a humbled scattering throughout the halls as everyone returned to their sections. I spat out my FruicyJuit gum and went to toss it into the bin.
That’s when I noticed something. The yellow fruity gum I thought I had been chewing was really chunks of glommed plastic, masticated until they were like couch fluff. But I could see now that they were made from the same stuff as the artificial cheese slices, with added sugar.
I guess we had to move the product somehow.
I left my work pen for a tiny machine-made coffee and had just gotten back to my office, slumping in the armadillo-skin of the chair, when the phone rang. My hand shot out before I even realized it, putting the headpiece to my face in a Pavlovian response.
“Hello,” I began, “Can I tell you about TransNatioNomics?”
There was a coughing and a gurgling from the other side of the line.
“You can go to hell,” the man rasped. “I bought from this number three weeks ago. ‘Sell fake cheese slices,’ you said! Well now I’m dying, all thanks to you!”
“I’m sorry, sir?” I shot back. “Did you say ‘dying?’”
My mind went to the possibility of a lawsuit. There was yet more coughing and sputtering, now with the sound of some bile rising up. I could feel his temperature rising over the line.
“Calm down, please,” I directed. “What exactly can I help you with?”
There was another phlegmatic cough on the line, this one sounding like something solid had just been hacked up. “Oh God, I can feel it,” he moaned. “It’s in my lungs, growing! You gotta make it stop!”
With sweaty palms I thumbed through the filing cabinet and removed the employee handbook. I sped to the index to try and find anything that would tell me how to deal with this situation.
In my haste, my thumb tore against the page corner and bore a drop of blood.
“If you can,” I said as I sucked the cut, “Tell me where it all began.”
“I ordered fifty boxes of the cheese slices,” he recounted. “To hold up the sales pyramid. But they started…changing me. Changing my head. I could feel myself breathing something in, like, like spores. I coughed up these yellow bits, oh god…”
I was zoning out, half-listening to his words, until I looked more closely at the dollop of blood on my finger.
Floating in that red pool were the tiniest flecks of bright yellow, in the unnatural shade of FruicyJuit gum and kitchen sponges.
The same color as those thousands of cheese slices.
A lump formed in the back of my throat. A dry-heave came over me, coughing into my arm and finding yellow specks left on my sleeve. The telephone slipped from my hand toward the floor, then danced on the bounce of its cord. I could still hear the customer’s livid voice coming out of it.
With some hesitation, I put the phone on speaker. A tidal wave of gurgling rammed my ear, sounding like a thousand cats in a toss-up at once. I could make out scattered phrases in the tsunami of sound, one of them being—and I remember this—“it’s in my brain!”
Several heads belonging to my coworkers, all nuzzling phones and chewing gum, poked over their cubicle walls like meerkats on the plain to find the source of the noise. I didn’t care, too transfixed on the horrible symphony of bile, wondering if the sweat running down me in rivulets had yellow flecks in it too.
With a suddenness that jolted me, the coughing stopped, replaced by dead air. I would have thought the call was disconnected, were it not for the caller speaking again after a long pause.
“I am quite sorry for my hysterics,” the man said, in a voice that was unmistakably his but lacking any of the panic it had a minute ago. “I don’t know what came over me, but I feel much better now. My faith in the sales pyramid is unshaken. Do not worry about me.”
The voice was flat and lifeless, as featureless as milk. With a gentle click and a beep, I heard him hang up.
“Lucky you,” called a voice from behind me. “You got to hear a conversion firsthand!”
I saw that now amassed in the doorway of my cubicle were about a dozen coworkers, all smiling at me expectantly. There were both Tracys, Phil with his golf club, Janine from HR, Derek, Smitty—the whole gang, really.
Their eyes were expectant. Knowing. Supportive. As if I had just stumbled on some great truth that had been self-evident to them for a while.
A few of them stuck out their tongues between chews of gum, showing that the soft pink flesh was turning an unnatural, plastic yellow.
Was I late to some kind of punchline?
“That man was seriously ill!” I protested. “He said it was because of exposure to our products! I think…I think we might be…”
“You think what, exactly?” a mellifluous voice asked me.
Mr. Kress stuck his balding face to the front of the crowd, the same knowing grin on it.
“What you call an illness,” he continued, “I call spiritual evolution. But it’s much more complicated than that…perhaps I could explain in my office?”
Before I knew it I was slap-bang in Mr. Kress’s expansive office on the top floor, awaiting my fate as he poked the balls of a Newton’s cradle. The blinds were lowered, shrouding us in a midday darkness.
“Sir,” I said, “With all due respect, I’m very frighten—”
He breathed deep; a heady sigh of disappointment calculated to be just loud enough to interrupt me dead in my tracks. It was a power move he had employed many times before, mostly when I complained about overtime.
“Look, pal,” he said warmly, “I know it can be hard, the first time. Hearing a full body conversion…it’s not always pleasant. Here, have some of this—it ought to take off the nerve.”
He plopped down a pack of FruicyJuit gum on the desk and slid it to me. I felt myself about to throw up.
“This isn’t real gum,” I whimpered, pulling out a stick from the box and stretching it like elastic. “It’s plastic, same as the cheese slices! You’ve been poisoning us!”
Mr. Kress laughed, a strong and hoary chuckle that shook my bones. It sounded more like a squeezebox than a man.
“My boy, it’s not plastic we’ve been feeding you,” he said. “It’s something much more ancient. Let me show you.”
He ducked down under the desk and rustled in the drawers for a moment. Returning up, he wrestled with a rumpled sheet of paper and formed it into a coherent shape. I raised my foot ever so slightly to leave before I caught his eye and stopped.
“Here we are,” he huffed, having broken out into a sweat as he unfurled a chart. “The full process. Transmogrification. I suppose, looking back on it, you were sick on the day of the presentation, so you missed the full briefing on the topic. But no matter.”
I examined the document; it was a serious affair on graphing paper, showing on it some sort of metamorphosis. In the first quadrant, a depiction of an adult male splayed out like the Vitruvian Man. In the second, the same figure, but with his skin turned chalky and bulging in spots. The third quadrant showed a man whose basic frame had begun to change, his arms and legs morphing into long spongy tubes, like pool noodles. The fourth quadrant showed a man totally transformed into something else, something more primal. His limbs were blobby and knobby like some cross between plastic and coral, and his face was a malleable blob as squishy-looking as Gumby. Little holes dotted his skin like swiss cheese, and his complexion was a neon yellow-gold.
The fifth quadrant was mysteriously absent.
“This is the true face of the sales pyramid,” he beamed. “The building blocks, if you will. Any human who comes into contact with the slices can be blessed with this gift—whether buyer or seller, all can be building blocks.”
“I don’t understand,” I protested. “It’s one thing to transmogrify the customers, but to do it to your workers…I mean, what sort of boss—”
“Now, there’s no need for such divisive vocabulary,” said Mr. Kress helpfully. “‘Workers’ has negative connotations. And I’d prefer not for you to think of me as your boss. I’m more of a friend that employs you, per se.”
“But what business sense does it make?” I demanded to know. “Where’s the money in turning us all into cheese-stuff?”
“This isn’t about money,” he said. “It’s about getting home.”
With the tap of a button on his desk, he caused the curtains to pull open, blinding me with a wide expanse of sunlight—I had become much more used to the electric light than the one outside. My eyes adjusted to see the city towers as I knew them, all tall and angular and like cardboard. But there was something in between the skyscrapers, a vast wall made of a wriggling, fleshlike texture.
It was a pyramid.
“My species was cast out of the place above,” Mr. Kress explained. “Some call it heaven, some call it outer space—you know, I’m not a stickler for names. Religion, multilevel marketing, astronomy, all the same thing, really.”
I was still gaping at the enormous pyramid in the streets—and the squishing blocks of human flesh that it consisted of.
How long had it been since I left the building? Had I really not noticed?
“What you’re looking at will be our launchpad,” he coolly elaborated. “A stepping stone for our chariot in its return to the Great Place.”
I looked at him with a tear in my eye.
“And I can’t come with you?”
“Sorry, you aren’t a cleric,” he shrugged. “You know, I don’t make the rules.”
Tears welling up in my eyes, I looked out at the writhing pyramid that was to be my future—the stepping stone to some world, some civilization, I would never even know.
“With all due respect, sir,” I told my boss, “I’ve enjoyed my time here, but I think I should move on.”
Running towards the window, I saw Mr. Kress dashing behind to stop me.
I didn’t care. Jumping through the glass, skin perforated, wind rushing through my hair, all of it. I was free.
As the ground raced towards me, I was swallowed up in that milky oblivion I had been so fascinated by years ago.