Fiction: Selections from Peter Cherches
I went to the post office to pick up a roll of forever stamps and noticed an FBI wanted poster on a bulletin board. The face on the poster looked like my next-doorneighbor, but the name below the photo was Elmo “Baby Face” Schnitzler, which was not the neighbor’s name. It was uncanny how much this Schniztler character looked like the neighbor. Though it was hard to see in the photo, he even seemed to have the same little birthmark below his left earlobe. The poster said he was wanted for rape, murder, and armed robbery.
Could the neighbor be a wanted man? Could he be hiding in plain sight from the law, in my building? But he’s been in the building as long as me, since the late ’80s. Could he have been committing crimes under an assumed name? Surely criminals don’t just give out their names, assumed or otherwise. Maybe if they’re con men they give out a false name, but a rapist and murderer? Does he say, “Hi, I’m ‘Baby Face’ Schnitzler, and I’m going to kill you?”
Should I report the neighbor? Should I call the cops? It seemed like the right thing to do, my civic duty. But if I turned out to be wrong, that would only make my precarious relationship with the neighbor even worse.
I looked at the photo again. I didn’t want to jump to any hasty conclusions. Unless he had a twin brother it had to be the neighbor. But hold the phone. I was wrong about the birthmark. The birthmark was on the left side of the photo, but I hadn’t taken into account that it was really the right side of the subject’s face. So it couldn’t be the neighbor after all.
I heard a voice behind me. “Uncanny, isn’t it?” I knew that voice. I turned around. It was, as I suspected, the neighbor. “So, are you going to turn me in?”
“Wait, that’s not really you, is it?” I asked.
“It’s hard to tell,” he replied.
The diner was having a special promotion for what I assumed to be a new vegan hamburger. It was called the Well-Beyond Impossible Burger. For $8.95 it included a strip of Untenable bacon, a slice of Inconceivable cheese, and a side of Prohibited fries. I actually wanted a real hamburger, but with the way prices have gotten out of control, I figured I might as well try the substitute while it was so cheap.
I didn’t really have high hopes, but I did have certain expectations.
The waitress brought a plate that looked rather sparse. On closer inspection, I noticed there were no fries, and while there was a hamburger bun, there was nothing on it.
I called the waitress back. “I think there’s been a mixup,” I said. “I ordered the Well-Beyond Impossible Burger special.”
“Yes,” she said, “that’s what I brought you.”
“It was supposed to come with fries.”
“No,” she said, “the fries are Prohibited. We’re not allowed to serve them.”
“Then why do you list them on the menu?”
“It’s part of the combination,” she said. “People want a well-rounded meal.”
“And what about this so-called burger? All I see is a bun.”
“The burger is Well-Beyond Impossible, and we haven’t the slightest idea how to make one. Same with the cheese. It’s so Inconceivable, our suppliers just laughed at us when we brought it up. And the bacon is simply Untenable. We won’t stand for it. So, as you can see, our only option is to serve a plain bun.”
“Can I at least have some butter?”
“We don’t have any butter,” she said, “but I can bring you some I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.”
“All right,” I said with a sigh, resigned. The waitress left my table, and a minute or so later she returned with one of those little bowls that diners use to hold environmentally unfriendly single servings of butter and jelly.
“Hey,” I said to the waitress, “this bowl is empty!”
“I know,” she said. “Can you believe it?”
There was a voice mail on my cell. “Hi Pete, this is your uncle Nat. Can you give me a call at this number?” And he left a number with a 516 area code, Long Island.
Well, that was weird. I did have an uncle Nat. He was married to aunt Norma, my mother’s sister. He was a fat guy who reminded me of Ralph Kramden. He always had cockamamie schemes. He seemed to drift from job to job, mostly sales. He was a schnorrer, a user. Once when I was visiting my mother in South Florida, Norma and Nat, who had also moved to the area, came over for a visit. Nat said to me, “Pete, do you go the movies?”
“Sure,” I said, “why?”
“I met this guy who manages the theater at the mall. Nice guy. Just tell him you’re my nephew and he’ll let you in for free.”
But uncle Nat died at least 30 years ago. In fact, I recently learned that my cousin Paul, his son, had died at age 76.
Still, the voice sounded like what I remembered of Nat’s voice, a kind of bellowing bravado. What was going on?
During my childhood, Nat and Norma lived on Long Island, first Old Bethpage, then Plainview. What, had his ghost moved back?
Maybe it was a phishing scam. I probably shouldn’t call the number, I figured. But this was too intriguing to just let it drop, so I called the number.
“This is Pete, returning your call.”
“I don’t remember calling any Pete.”
“Your nephew in Brooklyn.”
“I don’t have a nephew in Brooklyn.”
“This is Nat Kornreich, right?”
“No, this is Nat Kornblum.”
“And you don’t have a nephew Pete?”
“No. I have a nephew Keith. I left him a message earlier.”
“Does he live in Brooklyn?”
“No, he lives in Colorado Springs.”
“What’s Keith’s last name?”
“So your nephew is Keith Yerkes, and I’m Pete Cherches who had an uncle Nat Kornreich and you’re Nat Kornblum?”
“It appears so.”
“What’s the area code for Colorado Springs?”
“Ah, that’s it. The Brooklyn area code is 718.”
“Isn’t that funny,” Nat Kornblum said. “Hey listen, Pete, do you go to the movies? I feel bad for wasting your time with a wrong number, so if you’re ever in my neck of the woods, go to the RKO Plainview and tell the manager you know me. He’ll let you in for free.”
The Cherches Gallery
For several days I’d had an earworm of The Addams Family theme song, especially “Their house is a museum / When people come to see ’em.” Then it happened to me.
It literally happened overnight. And I mean “literally” in the original sense of the word. I woke up one morning and discovered that my studio apartment had been transformed into a museum. Whoever did the work must have been incredibly quick and quiet.
My apartment is rather small for a museum, so maybe “gallery” would be the more appropriate term. The collection was very eclectic. There were Pre-Columbian artifacts, shrunken heads, a tea kettle with a sleek Danish design, a display of jazz albums with covers by Andy Warhol and Mad magazine’s Don Martin, and a Vermeer hanging on the wall. That seemed like a major coup for such a small museum, a Vermeer.
Then I noticed I was not alone. There were visitors admiring the collection. I heard a man, apparently a tour guide, speaking to a small group.
“So we are now in the famous Cherches Gallery. Thanks to the generosity of writer Peter Cherches, we have this little jewel box of a museum, perhaps the most unique museum in Brooklyn.” (I long ago accepted the inevitability of the phrase “most unique.”) “And it’s close enough to The Brooklyn Museum of Art that one can easily visit both in the same day. Just make sure to plan your visit around the Brooklyn Museum’s closing days, which are Mondays and Tuesdays. The Cherches Gallery, on the other hand, is open 24/7.”
24/7? Does that mean I’ll have to put up with strangers in my apartment night and day, day in and day out? I didn’t remember ever authorizing such a thing.
The guide pointed at the Vermeer. “This, of course, is the gallery’s most prized painting, by Johannes Vermeer, and it’s worth a quick look, but the real heart of the collection is over here.” He pointed at me sitting up in my bed.
“Yes, Peter Cherches himself! Cherches has long been interested in making his persona the center of his own work, so he decided that he should also be the pièce de résistance of his own gallery. His corpus, as it were.” I heard sighs of admiration. “Please have a look.”
A group of five tourists, one an old-timer with a camera around his neck, gathered around my bed and gawked at me.
“He looks older than in the photos,” one of them said. Of course I looked older than in my photos. I am older than in my photos.
Then a middle-aged woman, somewhat zaftig, in jeans and sensible shoes, reached out and touched me.
“Hey,” I yelled out, “this is a gallery, not a petting zoo!”
“Oh, shorry, shorry,” the woman apologized in a Dutch accent.
Peter Cherches has been called “one of the innovators of the short short story” by Publishers Weekly. His most recent book is Things (Bamboo Dart Press). His writing has appeared in scores of magazines, anthologies and websites, including Harper’s, Flash, Bomb, Semiotext(e) and Fiction International, as well as Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 website and anthology.