CHEETO DUST • by Paula Morton

Bucky is late again. This ticks me off, since I have to cover for him. Yes, I’m the best waitress this dive has ever seen, but a bartender I’m not.

What did you expect? I ask myself. After living with the guy for six months, I should know he’s always late.

The door opens, and a stranger walks in and heads for a bar stool. I size him up: middle-aged, receding hairline, watery blue eyes. No hat, but he’s wearing a pair of black knit gloves, cheap ones from the dollar store. I give the counter a swipe with a dingy cloth and ask, “What’ll it be?” Something simple, I think at him, hard. Draft beer is my style, not paper umbrellas.

He folds his hands on the counter, gingerly, like his fingers might break. “Budweiser?”

“Sure.” Relieved, I draw him a glass. He places his gloved hands on either side of the glass and lifts it by pressing it between his palms. He eyes me over the top of the suds. I come right out and ask, “What’s wrong with your hands?”

He sets the glass down and smiles into it. “My fingers. They’re… different.”

“Hm.” I dust the counter some more. “Different how?” My mother would skin me for being so nosy.

He shrugs, still smiling. I scrub at a spot that isn’t there. Finally he says flatly, “I’ve got Cheetos for fingers.”

“Oh.” Wait’ll Bucky hears this.

The man’s eyes glaze over. “I was six when it happened. My ma warned me, ‘If you keep eating those Cheetos, you’ll turn into one.’ So I sneaked a fresh bag up to bed and ate the whole thing. I dreamed about Cheetos all night. The ground was Cheetos, the sky was Cheetos, everything. When I woke up — no more fingers. Just Cheetos.” He pauses. “And a whole mess of orange powder on the sheets.”

“I’ll bet,” I say, playing along. “That powder gets everywhere.”

He nods. “Ma said I was lucky it was just my fingers and sent me to school. Said, ‘Now, don’t you eat those fingers.’ Of course, I ate them all before I got to the bus stop.” He sips his beer, holding it carefully between his palms.

“They grew back?” I guess. He nods again. “Did the other kids notice?”

“Yeah. By lunchtime, everybody knew I had Cheetos for fingers. And everybody wanted to be my best friend.”

“Mr. Popular. Nice.”

“No.” He shakes his head. “From then on, I never knew who was really my friend. Everybody wanted to snack on me, so how was I supposed to know if they really liked me or not?”

I think of Bucky. “Yeah.”

“And I couldn’t play games anymore. Before this—” He set his beer down and stares morosely at his gloved fingers. “Before this, I loved recess. Softball, dodgeball, touch football, you name it. But now if I caught a ball, my fingers would break right off. So I always got picked last for teams.”

“But first for snacks,” I point out.

“Yeah.” He presses his glass between his palms and takes another swallow. I notice a bit of orange powder on the fingertips of his gloves.

“Which kind of Cheetos?” I blurt out. “Fat puffy ones or thin crunchy?”

“Fat puffy.”

“Good. The crunchy ones taste like motor oil.”

He squints at me. “That’s funny. My dad told me I should have at least grown the right kind of Cheetos. Said these taste like styrofoam.”

“Yeah, but it’s cheese-flavored styrofoam,” I protest. “Better than motor oil.” He laughs. Then he gazes down at his gloves, like he’s deciding something.

Slowly, he grasps the bottom of his left glove between his right thumb and forefinger. Slowly, he pulls the glove inside out, exposing his left hand. I take a step back. He lifts his hand, waggling five fat neon-orange tubers at me.

“Told you,” he says, and carefully breaks off his index Cheeto with a sharp snap. I flinch.

He reaches across the counter with his still-gloved hand and pats my arm. “It doesn’t hurt,” he says reassuringly. “And it’ll grow back in an hour.” He hands me the Cheeto.

I stare at it, and then I do my mother proud. I don’t scream. I don’t ask any more nosy questions. I just say, “Thank you,” and my voice is steady.

“Don’t mention it,” he replies, pulling his glove back on. The index finger of his right glove flops as he lifts his glass between his palms. He drains the rest of his Budweiser and leaves.

I examine the Cheeto in my hand. Maybe I should have it bronzed, like a baby shoe.

I don’t, of course. First I suck off all the orange, and then I put the powderless Cheeto on my tongue. Pressing it against the roof of my mouth, I feel it go soggy as the crumbs mash together in a paste. It slides down my throat in a lump that tastes vaguely of corn.

When Bucky comes in, he wants to know why my eyes are red. I tell him I got something in them. “Cheeto dust, maybe.”

He gives me a quizzical look. “We don’t serve Cheetos.”

I change the subject. “Next time you’re late, I’m not covering for you.”

He grins. “Yes, you will. You always do.” He kisses me, and I resist for only a moment. “That’s why I love you,” he whispers into my hair.

Pulling away from him, I go to the coat hook for my jacket. Bucky frowns. “Where are you going?”

“Down to the convenience store,” I tell him. I want Cheetos.

Paula Morton is a retired Episcopal priest and Navy chaplain. She lives in Saluda, NC (population 708) with her husband and aging Golden Doodle, writing weird fiction and planting flowers that sometimes grow.

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