Stories from Peter Cherches

Pot Luck

	My next-door neighbor was throwing a little party, a get-together, a pot luck. He couldn’t very well exclude me since the whole building was invited, so I made my signature pot luck dish, a simple but popular potato salad made from halved boiled new potatoes, skin on, dressed with tarragon mustard, mayonnaise, and capers.
	I put some pants on and rang the bell next door. One of the guests, another neighbor, opened the door with a chicken drumstick in her right hand. I knew her face, but not her name. “Come on in and join the festivities,” she said. 
	I introduced myself. “Pete,” I said, and extended my right hand to shake as I balanced the bowl in my left hand against my chest. She shifted the drumstick to her left hand and shook my clean, dry, recently washed right hand with her greasy one. 
	“Tanya. You live right next door, right, Pete?”
	“Right,” I said, “I share a wall with this apartment.”
	“I’ve heard,” she said.
	What did she hear? What did the neighbor tell her? 
	“Oh?” I said.
	“Yes indeedy. Your next-door neighbor and I have no secrets from each other!”
	Was it something that could count as a secret? What could the neighbor have heard? 
	“Some pretty amusing stuff, I’ve got to say,” she added.
	Amusing? Do I talk in my sleep, loudly enough for the neighbor to hear? Does he have access to my unconscious, an access even greater than mine? I needed to find out what the neighbor heard. Should I be blunt, get right to the point, or would it be wiser to start by fishing around? 
	I decided to cast my line and see what bit. “Amusing?”
	“Surely you wouldn’t disagree.”
	“Well,” I said, “I’ve never really thought about it.”
	“Are you serious?”
	“Sure I’m serious. Why shouldn’t I be serious?”
	“Well,” she said, “it’s just that it’s really funny to a third party, to be honest. No offense.”
	It must have been pretty funny to a second party too, if the neighbor told her about it.
	“I guess I’d have to hear it through your ears,” I said, hoping she’d get the hint.
	“I guess you would,” she replied. “Well, have a good time. This chicken’s really good, by the way. The old Greek lady in 2B made it. I don’t know what these herbs are, but it’s so yummy.” She walked away.
	I found a table to drop my potato salad bowl on and picked up a drumstick. Tanya was right. Yummy.
	Then the neighbor, my next-door neighbor, that is, saw me and came over. “Welcome to my humble abode,” he said. “Are you having a good time?”
	“Well, I just got here.” Then I said, “I’m glad I decided not to skip this shindig and stay in my apartment. With all this crowd noise it would be pretty hard to get anything done, what with the thin walls and all.”
	“Thin walls? I’ve never noticed. Well, have fun, and get yourself a glass of Zinfandel before it’s all gone.” He walked away, and soon I saw him whispering conspiratorially into Tanya’s ear.
	“Mrs. Papadopoulos!” I said as the lady from 2B came toward me. “Your drumsticks are delicious.”

The Efficiency Expert

	I was walking back to my cubicle from the pantry when I noticed a meeting in the fish bowl conference room. Seated in the room were my boss (the head of editorial), her boss (the head of creative), and her boss (the head of marketing), as well as a person I did not recognize at first. Then it hit me. I rubbed my eyes. Yes, I was sure, it was the neighbor! What’s he doing here? What business does he have with my management chain of command?
	I sat down with my tea and tried to make sense of the situation. Then Susheela, one of my co-workers, came by. She said to me, sotto voce, “Have you heard about the efficiency expert?”
	I wondered if they still used the term “efficiency expert” in Mumbai, where she grew up. A good old no-bullshit term, tells you right where you stand, unlike “management consultant.”
	“No,” I said, “What gives?”
	“There are rumors of big cuts coming. They want to make us leaner and meaner.”
	“I could certainly be leaner,” I said, “but I don’t think I could be any meaner.”
	“This is no joke. Nobody’s safe,” she said.
	Least of all me, I thought. Who gives a shit about proofreading in the 21st century?
	Was the neighbor the efficiency expert, the management consultant? I was never sure what he did for a living. What a coincidence that of all places he’d be doing his dirty business here in my front yard. Surely I’d be the first to go. That bastard has a vendetta against me, I was sure. I wouldn’t be surprised if he engineered this whole thing himself, just to get me fired from my job, or perhaps to see how I’d grovel under the threat of impending unemployment.
	Well I wouldn’t grovel, nosiree Bob. I’m close enough to retirement that I could just bite the bullet, maybe freelance a little. I’d have more time for writing. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise.
	A few minutes later, my manager came over to my cubicle. Uh oh, I thought, here comes the bad news.
	“Hey Pete,” she said, “the guy whose company services our printers said you look just like a guy from his apartment building.” I knew it, I thought, until my manager added, “But you don’t live in Bay Ridge, do you?”
	“No, Park Slope.”
	“I thought so. Well, I guess you have a lookalike in Bay Ridge.”
	Whew. I dodged a bullet, for the time being at least. So it wasn’t the neighbor after all, and it wasn’t the efficiency expert. 
	But what if the efficiency expert rumor were true nonetheless? 
	Well, at least I’d stand a fighting chance with a total stranger.

The Neighbor Asks a Question

	One day in the elevator the neighbor asked me something surprising. It was surprising enough that he even asked me something, since he often stares at his shoes and ignores me if we happen to be sharing the elevator. He asked me, “You know Judy Lieberman, don’t you?”
	The only Judy Lieberman I could remember was a grade-school classmate, and all I could remember about her was the Valentine’s Day card. It was our teacher’s idea, and I can’t imagine such a scheme would fly today. We would pick a name at random from a box and send a Valentine’s Day card to that person. The boys picked from a box of girls’ names, and vice versa. So each boy would send a card to one girl classmate, and a different girl, in my case Judy Lieberman, would send one to a boy. I suppose a boy and a girl could have drawn each other, but I don’t know what the odds would be given about 15 names of each gender. I can’t remember who I sent mine to, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Judy Lieberman, and I’m positive it wasn’t Susan Klugman, my arch-enemy from spelling bee—that I’d have remembered. I do remember Judy Lieberman’s Valentine’s Day card. It had a drawing of a dachshund and it said “I long to be your Valentine.” Why was the neighbor asking me about Judy Lieberman?
	“Well,” I said, “I went to school with a girl named Judy Lieberman, but I haven’t thought about her in over fifty years.”
	“As I thought,” he said.
	As he thought? Why did he think anything about me and Judy Lieberman? How did he even know about her? As far as I know, he’s not from the old neighborhood.
	“Did you go to P.S. 217?” I asked him.
	“Did you know Judy Lieberman?”
	“Then why did you ask me if I knew her?”
	“Just checking,” he replied as the door opened to the lobby.

Being Human

	I woke up wondering if I was human. I pinched myself, my left cheek with the thumb and forefinger of my left hand; I’m a lefty. I felt something, so I figured I must be corporeal. And if I was wondering about my humanity, I was clearly sentient. So why the concern? I chalked it up to AI.
	I had been experimenting a lot with the new generation of artificial intelligence chatbots. I had prompted them to write stories in my style, and the ones that were generated often called the main character Peter Cherches, which makes sense since many of my stories have me as the main character. Not me exactly, a fictional analog of me. But that fictional me was always a reflection of the real me, a vessel for my own anxieties and confusions. Look, I won’t deny the fact that I’m a narcissistic S.O.B. My stories have been about myself for years, though I only started using my own name regularly in the past ten years. Before that it was usually I or He, and for a while in the nineties it was Clarence.
	On the surface those AI stories about Peter Cherches were pretty good counterfeits of my fiction, but on closer examination there was something off about Peter Cherches, something not quite real, something like a hologram of Peter Cherches, a hollow illusion. The Peter Cherches of the AI stories was a stranger to me, and now I was starting to feel like a stranger to myself.
	I need to get out, I thought. Sitting in the apartment, alone in a chair pinching my cheek, was not helping things. I needed social intercourse, human contact, to reconnect with my own humanity. 
	Maybe I’ll go to the Korean produce shop across the street and chat up Tai, the owner. Wait, what was I thinking, Tai’s place has been gone for at least fifteen years; now it’s a coffee place. I guess I’ll take a small load down to the Wash-Dry-Fold Laundry and exchange pleasantries with Judy, the owner. So I gathered up some dirty clothes from the hamper, threw them in a laundry bag, and left my apartment.
	As I was leaving the building, the neighbor was just coming in. He was smiling. Not just smiling, beaming. Completely uncharacteristic for someone best described as a prune.
	“Ain’t it grand to be human?” the neighbor said as we passed each other. 

The Laundry Room

	I don’t do my own laundry, I send it out, but I do pass through my building’s laundry room to get to the recycling area. The other day I saw the neighbor down there, taking his laundry out of the dryer, engaged in conversation with Mrs. Papadopoulos from 2B. 
	The neighbor was talking loudly, agitated. “He’s not a nice person! You should see the contempt on his face every time he looks at me. I swear, one day I’m going to kill that scumbag.”
	Who was he talking about? I wondered.
	“You’re just imagining things,” Mrs. Papadopoulos said calmly.
	“I’m not imagining things. And don’t think I don’t hear him talking about me all the time. Lies! Bald-faced lies!”
	Who would be talking about him all the time, telling lies?
	“He’s always been very polite to me,” Mrs. Papadopoulous said. “A very considerate young man.”
	“Young man! He’s no young man. I’ll bet he’s at least as old as I am.”
	“At my age you’re a young man too, young man.”
	Who were they talking about? To Mrs. Papadopoulos he’s a very nice, considerate young man, and to the neighbor he’s a scumbag. I suspected it was somebody who lived in the building. I didn’t want it to look like I was eavesdropping, so I passed through to drop off my paper recycling.
	As I was walking back through the laundry room, to the elevator, Mrs. Papadopoulos called out to me.
	“Top of the morning, young man!”