Five Stories from The Neighbor
It was Sunday morning at 10, time for one of my favorite TV shows, Everybody's a Philosopher! It's one of the longest-running programs on PBS, having debuted in 1965, and still with the original host, a Princeton philosophy professor, now emeritus and in his nineties. I started watching about 40 years ago, when the host had a shock of luxurious jet-black hair; over the years I've watched him go bald and turn gray. The premise of the show is that the week's interviewee is not some kind of expert or public figure, but rather a regular person, just like you or me or your next-door neighbor. The host, also the show's creator, calls it "an adventure in practical philosophy."
I turned the TV on and switched the channel to 13. The show's opening music came on, an abstract modern classical theme, the kind that was in vogue in the sixties. After the opening credits there's always a card with the topic of the day's program. This one said, "Has civility become extinct?"
Then the scene shifts to the studio, in shadow. As the lights came up on the host and guest, I was flabbergasted to recognize that the guest was the neighbor, my next-door neighbor. What was he doing on the show? I realize they'll take anyone, that's basically the whole premise of the thing, but this guy to talk about civility? What a laugh!
The host asked the guest, the neighbor, for his thoughts on civility, inspiring a veritable logorrhea of trite platitudes and dubious nostalgic claims about an idyllic past. What a tiresome bag of hot air, I thought. Then the host asked his guest for examples of the decline in civility, and that's when it became personal.
"Take my next-door neighbor," he said. "A walking advertisement for incivility. For instance, he blasts his music night and day, that weird jazz where everybody is honking and screeching."
"You mean free jazz?" the host asked.
"I wouldn't know," the neighbor said, "I only know it sounds like farm animals being slaughtered."
What a jerk. Besides being clueless about music, he was lying through his teeth. Night and day? There was one time, maybe 25 years ago when he knocked on my door, and without any opening pleasantries launched into a tirade of invective about my selfishness. I apologized, told him that I hadn't registered how loud it might sound beyond my walls because I had the water running to wash the dishes. I told him I'd turn it down, which I did. And he never came to complain again, all right, maybe two or three more times in all those years, so what's all this about night and day?
He continued. "And do you think he has any manners? Most of the time he doesn't even say hello, and when he does acknowledge me, in the lobby or the elevator, he never addresses me by name. We've been neighbors for over 30 years, and I don't think he even knows my name."
I do know his name, but I don't always remember it, sometimes I remember his first name but not his last, sometimes his last but not his first, so I just figure it's safer not to say his name. There are lots of people in the building whose names I don't know. What's the big deal?
"And I think the worst part is that sometimes when we run into each other I could swear he's looking right through me, as if I'm not even there, like I'm some kind of ghost."
Is that true? I always try to make eye contact. So maybe I don't quite pull it off all the time.
"Well, I'm afraid we've run out of time," the host said. "I'd like to thank our guest…" I made a mental note of the neighbor's name.
"And thank you all for watching Everybody's a Philosopher! Be sure to tune in at the same time next week when my guest and I will try to answer that age-old question, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself?' And remember, this program is made possible by viewers like you."
Your Virtual Neighbor
I asked the AI chatbot to write a story in my style. And it refused.
"I can't do that. That would be plagiarism. But I can tell you about Peter Cherches if you'd like."
I replied, "I know all I need to know about Peter Cherches. I am Peter Cherches. So it can't be plagiarism because I am Peter Cherches."
"No, you're not Peter Cherches," was the response.
What? "What?" I typed.
"You're not Peter Cherches. You're an imposter. I would know if you were Peter Cherches. I know all."
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, now he's going to have an identity crisis. He's going to start doubting that he's Peter Cherches. Well you'd be wrong.
"Well, this is something you don't know. So go ahead and write a story in my style."
I got no response. This is bullshit, I thought. AI is just a waste of time.
My doorbell rang. "Who is it?"
I opened the door. "The weirdest thing happened," the neighbor said. "All of a sudden my WiFi printer turned on and started printing this." He handed me a piece of paper. "It appears to be yours."
I thanked him and closed the door.
The piece of paper had my name in the upper left, along with my email address and a word count. It was a story in my style, first-person, me narrating. In the story I discover that the neighbor isn't human at all, that he's actually a chatbot called "Your Virtual Neighbor," which was also the title of the story.
I went to my local supermarket, the Key Food at the corner of 7th and Carroll, to pick up some odds and ends. My first stop was the natural and organic aisle, for a jar of Brad's almond butter, Brad's Naturals, that is, which is three bucks cheaper than Brad's Organic, a distinction that means nothing to me, I just like Brad's almond butter. After I dropped the jar in my cart, who did I see but the neighbor. He didn't notice me. He was engrossed in reading a box of high-fiber cereal. I passed on by.
I stopped by the refrigerator case and picked up a package of Boar's Head bratwurst. I started reading the nutritional information. "You don't want that," I heard a voice behind me say. "Even with the revised guidelines, that's an awful lot of saturated fat." I knew that voice. That was the voice of the neighbor. I turned around. The neighbor was nowhere in sight. Actually, there was nobody right near me. How did he do that? I wondered. Did he throw his voice?
I moved on. In the soup section I grabbed a can of Progresso Chickarina, my favorite canned soup since childhood. Then I heard a voice. "Always the same soup. Don't you ever get bored? Why not the Hearty Chicken and Rotini for a change?" The neighbor again! But once again, no neighbor in sight. How is he doing this? Why is he gaslighting me?
Next stop, coffee and tea. I picked up a box of tea, the same tea I pick up every time. Just to look at. Never to buy. Just to look at with bittersweet nostalgia. "You're not going to buy that! That was her favorite." All right, enough is enough. "What did you say?" I yelled angrily. I turned around. The first thing I saw was another shopping cart. Aha! Caught red-handed. But then I saw it was not the neighbor at all, it was a woman, about my age.
"Oh, I'm sorry if I startled you," she said. "I just said, ‘Oh, I'm going to buy that. That's my favorite.'"
"No problem," I told her, and we smiled at each other.
Then I remembered I had forgotten something in natural and organic. I needed a box of Nature's Path Flax Plus Raisin Bran. So I returned to that aisle and grabbed a box of the cereal. The neighbor was still there, reading cereal boxes. This time he noticed me. "Oh, hello!" he said.
"Read anything good lately?" I asked him.
"As a matter of fact yes. Listen." And he began to read aloud from the back of a box of muesli: "‘Why don't you get the hell out of my head?' I shouted at the neighbor."
This guy really is everywhere, I thought when I saw him on Jeopardy.
"Peter Cherches for eight hundred," I heard the neighbor say.
I was walking past a small mom and pop appliance store that had a TV in the window connected to a camera pointed onto the street, so you can see yourself on the TV as you're passing by. Black and white. I guess it's an attention-grabber for the business. I was in no rush, so I stood right in front of the window, watching myself on the TV. First I moved my head from side to side. Then I started making funny faces, and soon I was dancing as I continued to contort my face, a jerky solo dance, as I imagined Lucky's dance in Waiting for Godot. A crowd formed to watch me dancing and making faces. Because I was facing the window, they had to watch the TV to see the faces I made. And I could see the faces of the people at the front of the crowd behind me, on the TV. Then I thought I saw a familiar face on the screen. Could it be? It had to be. I'd recognize that stern scowl anywhere. It was the neighbor! I kept dancing. Then I saw something surprising. The neighbor was smiling. Soon he started making funny faces. Then he stepped forward.
Side by side, the neighbor joined me in the dance.
Peter Cherches' latest book is Things, a collection of miscellaneous short prose and poetry from Bamboo Dart Press. His "Excerpts from Mr. Deadman" appeared in Issue 28 of The Cafe Irreal and in The Irreal Reader: Fiction & Essays from The Cafe Irreal; "The Return of Amelia Earhart" appeared in Issue 48; Three Stories appeared in Issue 70; "The New Guest" and "Closed Indefinitely" appeared in Issue 81; "Collected Stories and The Most Beautiful Beach in Brazil" appeared in Issue 83; and Three Stories from The Neighbor in Issue 85.