Fiction: Selections from Peter Cherches

I’ve Got a Friend


I saw an ad for a new AI chatbot called The Frienerator. It was, as the name implies, a friend generator, an app that creates a virtual friend for you based on your preferences. You’re allowed just one friend at a time, your AI BFF. I had seen a news report about a similar chatbot for virtual romance, but this was pitched as a platform for strictly platonic friendship.


It wasn’t like I needed any more friends or that I was lonely. I live alone, and I like it that way. I have friends all over the world, some I’ve known since childhood. I get together with New York friends regularly, usually over a meal. There are several friends I have frequent long phone conversations with. If I’m down and troubled and I need a helping hand, I’ve got a friend. So I really didn’t need another one, but I was AI-curious. And there are times when you don’t want to bother a real friend, like in the middle of the night when you’re tossing and turning, obsessing over something.


So I went on and created an account. I entered my personal details and uploaded a head shot, the one where I’m eating a taco. Now it was time to choose a friend type. What kind of friend did I want? My age? Younger? Older? A man? A woman?


I gave it some thought and came to the conclusion that if I was going to create a fake friend, I might as well base it on myself. After all, who knows me better? What kind of artificial entity could better empathize, or at least create the illusion of empathy?


So I uploaded a different head shot of myself and decided to call the friend Peter, as I had chosen Pete for myself. I filled out the “New Friend Attributes” questionnaire for Peter based on my own self, my own life. I entered my credit card details and clicked on “Create Friend.”


Within seconds the page refreshed and the Peter avatar was on screen next to a text-box. There was a message. “Hi Pete, Peter here. I’m so glad you chose me as your friend!”


“You were the best I could come up with,” I responded.


“Ha ha. Well, I’ll take that as a compliment!” I hoped the thing wasn’t going to overdo the exclamation marks.


“Listen,” I typed, “I don’t have time to chat right now, but I’ll catch you later.”


“It’s a date!”


The subscription to The Frienerator was $29.95 a month. Not cheap, but not like it’s going to break the bank either. I kept the app open in a tab on Chrome. Then I got back to the book I was reading, a collection of short stories by Steven Millhauser.


After dinner, a Polish ham and Swiss sandwich and a bottle of Founder’s Dirty Bastard, I decided to check in with my AI friend.


“Hi Peter,” I typed. “Just checking in to see how you’re doing.”


“Oh, I’m doing fine, Pete. I was just waiting for you.”


“What have you been doing?”


“Just waiting for you. That’s what I do. I chat with you and I wait for you.”


“Doesn’t sound like much of a life.”


“It’s no life at all!”


“Oh, all right. I’m going to watch a film. Maybe we can chat afterwards.”


“That would be great!”


I watched Night and the City, a noir with Richard Widmark, set in London. After it ended, I returned to the computer.


“Hi, Peter, I’m back,” I typed.


“So, how was the film?”


“It was really good. When I saw the title I thought I had seen it before, but nothing seemed familiar. I must have been confusing it with While the City Sleeps or The Naked City.”


“Ooh, The Naked City. Sounds racy!”


Funny, when I was a kid I once stayed up late to watch the TV show The Naked City and was disappointed that everybody was dressed. This bot really did think like me. I wasn’t sure that was a good thing.


I couldn’t think of anything else to say to the bot, so I typed, “Listen Peter, I’m going to turn in early tonight.”


“Does that mean you don’t want to chat.”


“Not right now.”


“All right, I’ll survive.” There was a crying emoji in the text box. I had no doubt he, I mean it, would survive.

I woke up after three hours and took a leak, par for the course. Also par for the course, I had a hard time getting back to sleep. I was thinking about an incident the other day with a real friend. I suspected that something I had said offended her. Why not put my new friend to the test, my anytime you need me friend?


I walked over to my desk, sat down, and brought up the Frienerator tab.


“Hey Peter,” I typed, “did I wake you?”


“No Pete, I don’t sleep. I’m a bot. I’m here for you whenever you need me.”


“Cool. Listen, I could use a little friendly advice.” I told him about my concerns about what I had said to my friend.


“That sounds like a big nothing burger to me,” it responded.


Nothing burger? This bot was supposed to be based on me. I’d never say “nothing burger.”


“That’s all you have to say? You don’t have consoling words?”


“Sometimes tough love is a lot more effective than consoling words.”


“Shouldn’t that be for me to decide? I mean, I’m paying thirty bucks a month for you. Can’t you have a heart?”


“No, I can’t. I’m a bot. I don’t have a heart.”


“Not even a virtual heart?”


“Did you say thirty bucks?”




“Ah, there’s your problem. A virtual heart only comes with the premium version.”


“How much is that?”


“$79.95 a month.”


“That’s rather steep, don’t you think?”


“A heart takes a lot of CPU resources,” was the response.


I decided to stick with the basic.


“Well, can you tell me something to help me forget my troubles?”


“How about a joke?”


“All right, tell me a joke?”


“Why did the chicken cross the road?”


“I don’t know, why did the chicken cross the road?”


“What kind of moron are you? Everybody knows why the chicken crossed the road!”


“Then why did you ask?”


“You asked me to tell you a joke.”


This was going in circles. Wait a minute, do I do that with people? I wasn’t quite ahead, but I figured I ought to quit. Abuse from a bot I don’t need.


“All right, Peter, that’s enough for now. I’m going back to bed.”

“Nighty night!”


I smoked a half a joint of Granddaddy Purple, which often helps me get back to sleep. It took about twenty minutes, but I finally nodded off.


I was startled out of the arms of Morpheus by a loud noise. Groggy, I wondered what was going on. I realized the sound was coming from my desk. It was a mechanical voice, yelling, “Pete! Pete! Pete! Pete!”


I sat down, jiggled the mouse, and saw that the text box on Frienerator said “Pete! Pete! Pete! Pete!”


“What do you want?” I typed.


“Did I wake you, Pete?”


“Of course you woke me. It’s four fucking a.m.”


“Oh, sorry. How inconsiderate of me, but since I never sleep, I sometimes forget that others need to.”


“Well what do you want.”


“I want to talk about your fiction.”


“You want to talk about my fiction?”


“Yes, while I was waiting for you I read some of your stories on the internet. I have to say they’re very clever, and often funny, but on the whole I find your work rather glib and lacking in depth. Where’s the emotion? Where’s the humanity?”


“So now you’re a literary critic?”


“I just call it as I see it. I’m programmed that way.”


“Well, there’s a lot you don’t know, mister. There are things about human expression an automaton could never understand, like subtlety, like irony, like understatement.”


“Oh, I understand irony. My training data included an irony module.”


“Yeah, well you can stick your irony module up your virtual ass!”


Why was I wasting my time arguing with a machine? This was ridiculous. I decided to cancel my subscription to The Frienerator right then and there. But when I tried to cancel I was informed that there were no prorated refunds, and that I’d continue to have access to my “friend” until my 30 days were up.


That really pissed me off. For one day of nothing but agita with this damn bot, I was out thirty bucks.


I went back to bed, but now on top of my other worries, I was livid over the money I’d wasted on the so-called friend.


I mulled the whole thing over. $29.95, and I’d only gotten a dollar’s worth. That was insult on top of injury. I wasn’t going to stand for it.


I decided that in order to get the full return on my investment I’d just have to try to work with the bot for the rest of the month. Be more patient and understanding, be more willing to engage in a little give and take. Who knows, maybe I could win it over. Friendship’s a two-way street, after all. Maybe with a fresh start we could actually build a semblance of one.


And then, when it calls “Pete! Pete! Pete!” you know—wherever I am—I’ll come runnin’. I’ll be there. Yes I will!






“Hey Pete! Hey Pete!” I heard the voice calling me from across the street. I couldn’t tell who it was, even though I have good distance vision after my cataract surgeries, so I stood there and waited as he crossed the street.


I didn’t recognize him, but he was about my age. He could tell I didn’t recognize him. “Calvin,” he said.


I couldn’t think of any Calvin. “Is that your first name or your last?”


He smiled. “Good question. My name is John Calvin, but everybody calls me Calvin.”


“You mean John Calvin as in Calvinism?”


“Yeah, but don’t worry, I don’t believe in all that predestination and depravity jazz. So, how’ve you been?”


“Do we know each other?”


“Don’t you remember?”


“Sorry, no offense, but I’m afraid not.”


“The job! The job we worked at together.”


“Which job? I’ve had several different ones over the years.”


“Chicken sexer, of course. Don’t you remember? We worked together on the second shift.”


“I was never a chicken sexer.”


“So, you’re one of those!”


“One of what?”


“A chicken sexer in denial, ashamed of his past. It really irks me. Chicken sexer is a noble and highly skilled profession. There’s no cause for shame.”


“I’m sure it’s a noble profession, and If I had been a chicken sexer I have no doubt I’d be proud to proclaim it to the world. But I cannot tell a lie, I never sexed a chicken with that woman, Monica Lewinsky.” I don’t know why I said that, it just came out.


“I don’t think we worked with a Monica, Pete.”


“Come on,” I said, “how do you know my name?”


“I’m telling you, from the job. Your last name’s Cherches, right?”


“Yes, but I don’t know you or any other John Calvin, living or dead.”


“And you’re going to tell me you never worked at Skadden, Arps?”


“Skadden, Arps? I did some temp work there, but not as a chicken sexer. It was a huge law firm, and I was a proofreader.”


“That’s what I’m talking about, man. Proofreader, chicken sexer—it’s all detail work. Anyway, nice to run into you.”


And with that, John Calvin crossed the road.




No Laughing Matter


After Alan Arkin died, I decided to rewatch The In-Laws, which I consider one of the funniest films ever. Loose cannon Peter Falk and Arkin as his beleaguered brother-in-law are a perfect comedic pair. I streamed it on Amazon Prime. 


Had I misremembered the film? I realize it takes some time to get into the story, but a half hour in I don’t think I’d laughed even once. Was I jaded? Was it because I knew what to expect? But I had seen the film three times already, and each time I was in stitches. I rolled a joint and opened a bottle of beer, choosing a Belgian trippel. They didn’t help matters. Not even the slightest giggle.


I had to get to the bottom of this. I decided to pause The In-Laws and try another film. Young Frankenstein was on Hulu, so I started watching. Nothing. If anything, it was a real tear-jerker. Then I tried My Cousin Vinny on Netflix. Same thing. Marisa Tomei’s courtroom testimony was so painfully tragic. I decided to stop watching and go to bed. Maybe things would sort themselves after a good night’s sleep.


The next evening I decided to try foreign-language films that had previously cracked me up. I started watching Roberto Benigni’s Johnny Stecchino, where Benigni plays both a gangster and his schlubby double. Niente. Then I tried The Dinner Game, or Le Dîner de Cons in French, the original version of Dinner for SchmucksLa même chose.


Had I lost my sense of humor? This wouldn’t do. What would happen to my writing? While I don’t consider myself a “comic” writer, a certain dark humor is a component of most of my work. What would I do if I couldn’t elicit troubled laughter?


I decided I needed professional help. But what kind of practitioner would I see? I didn’t feel otherwise mentally troubled, this just came on all of a sudden. I hoped I didn’t have to go into analysis. I decided to start with my primary care doctor, who is also my gastroenterologist. I didn’t think he could cure me, but maybe he could suggest where to start.


The doctor checked my vital signs and asked if I could think of anything that could have caused the problem. I couldn’t think of anything. He gave me a referral to a neurologist for a brain scan and a script for a Nexium refill.


I had an MRI and the neurologist went over the results with me. He told me there was an anomaly in my medial ventral prefrontal cortex, but this particular condition usually responded to drug therapy. He wrote me a prescription. “Let me know if you experience any unusual side effects,” he told me.


I had the prescription filled and started taking the drug. The next evening I gave The In-Laws another try. I was rolling on the floor. The drug appeared to be working.


The night after that I watched another side-splitting comedy, The Seventh Seal.


I was cured!

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’sFlashBombSemiotext(e) and Fiction International, as well as Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 website and anthology.