Issue #85

Winter 2023

Three Stories from The Neighbor

by Peter Cherches

Paris Review

I picked up the latest Paris Review. To my surprise, upon perusing the table of contents, I discovered that the issue featured a story by the neighbor. Who knew he was a writer? And not only a writer, but in The Paris Review, a journal I've tried unsuccessfully to break into for forty years. I did come close once, though.

Anyway, I read the neighbor's story first. I was curious. What did he write like? Was it stiff and humorless, as I viewed the neighbor himself?

Not at all. In fact, it was quirky and funny. This guy's good, I thought. Then something struck me about his story. It sounded like something I could have written. It had a lot of my stylistic DNA, fingerprints, what have you. It started out matter of fact, then things starting getting weird. It was in the first person, and the "I" was the kind of character strange things keep happening to, things that make him question his own identity. It had my rhythms, my repetitions, and yes, the puns that have alienated a good 90% of my potential audience. That voice was me all over. I must have written that story and forgotten about it, and he must have found it somewhere, somehow, and published it under his name. At one point in the story, where another character would normally ask, "Aren't you Pete Cherches?," it was the neighbor's name that was uttered, much to my disquiet.

The story ended on an ambiguous, uncomfortable note. Pure me!

Surely he had stolen my story and just changed a name here, a comma there.

I couldn't remember writing that story, yet it was so me. I went through all the folders on my computer. Looked at long-abandoned stories. Then I went back further, to the days of the Adler electric typewriter, shuffled through the papers in the Manila folders. Nothing.

All right, maybe I didn't write it, but I could have.

I tried to keep my cool. I rang the neighbor's doorbell.

"Yes?" he said suspiciously as he opened the door.

"I just read your story in Paris Review. I thought it was very good, but I got the distinct feeling you were plagiarizing me."

"Plagiarizing? Pray tell, can you show me the story I plagiarized?"

"I couldn't find it. But I know that style, that voice. I must have written it."

"No," he said, "I wrote it. I wrote it because you didn't."

***

Halloween

On Halloween, when I was a kid, we used to make the rounds of the six-storey apartment buildings in the immediate neighborhood. But that was a very different time. Now, where I live, only about four miles from where I grew up, no kids come inside the buildings for trick or treat. Instead there's a kids' parade for the length of the main shopping drag, and the shopkeepers all hand out goodies in front of the stores.

So I was surprised when I heard my doorbell. "Who is it," I yelled.

"Trick or treat for UNICEF!" It was a kid's voice.

I remembered trick or treat for UNICEF from when I was a kid, but I didn't know it was still a thing. There were some kids in my old neighborhood who did it, but cynical little me wrote those kids off as goody-goodies, though I also suspected some of them of skimming. Who'd know? In retrospect I think they probably just had more moral fiber than I did at that age.

I opened the door. The trick-or-treater was pretty big for a kid, about my height and weight. But even weirder than his size, he was wearing a mask of me as I look now. He wasn't dressed anything like me, however. He was wearing short pants and on his head was a beanie with a propeller, kid accoutrements that made for a striking contrast with the mask of my rapidly aging face.

"That's some mask," I said to the kid. "Who are you going as?"

"Not who, what. I'm a writer. I don't remember his name, but my mom read to me from one of his books, and it was very funny." Lucky kid, I thought; my own mother never had any interest in reading my stuff.

The kid's voice was creeping me out a bit, though. It only took a moment for me to realize it was because he sounded just like me as a kid. You don't really ever think about how your voice sounded at earlier ages, but when you hear a recording from the past there's always the shock of recognition.

"Your mother sounds like a very fine lady," I said.

"Oh, she is," he said. "The best!" That stung.

I was flattered that a kid would want to go around as me for Halloween. I mean, it's not like I'm famous or anything. I decided not to tell him that I was that very writer. I like my anonymity, which is good, because that's what I'm stuck with.

"So, who should I make the check out to, UNICEF?" I asked the kid.

"Oh, I don't know. Probably," he said. "Usually people just give loose change or a buck or two, maybe a fiver."

"Oh, I want to give more," I said. "I admire what you're doing. I wish I were a little more altruistic when I was your age."

"Altruistic, I know what that means!" he said. "Thanks, mister."

I made out a check for fifty and handed it to him.

The kid said, "Thanks, but how about something for me? A kid's gotta have a fun Halloween too you know, it's not all self-sacrifice."

That caught me off guard. "I don't have any candy," I said. "We usually never get visitors on Halloween."

"Doesn't have to be candy."

I was trying to think of what I could give him. I mostly order takeout, so there wasn't much in the pantry. I pulled out a can of King Oscar kipper snacks. "How about this?"

"That'll do," he said.

I was about to drop the can in his shopping bag when he said, "I'd prefer to eat it here if that's all right."

I wasn't keen on a strange kid eating kippers in my kitchen, but I didn't want to disappoint him, considering how hard he was working for the benefit of children less fortunate than he. So I took the wrapper off the can, pulled the lid off, drained the broth it was packed in, and put the kippered herring filets on a plate for him.

After a few bites he said, "This is pretty good, but I gotta go. I have lots more apartments to visit before the night is done. I sometimes cry when I think of those poor unfortunate kids in the third world."

"Goodbye and good luck," I told him as I showed him out the door.

That was quite an experience, I thought. Imagine, a kid who wanted to be me for Halloween! Then I thought, wait a minute, maybe this was all an elaborate put on. I wouldn't put it past the neighbor to pull such a stunt. But man, if it was the neighbor, he really had my youthful voice down. I decided to confront that schmuck. I left my apartment and rang his bell.

"Who is it?" an unfamiliar voice asked. It was muffled, but it sounded like a kid's voice. Maybe the neighbor has a visiting nephew or something.

"It's the next-door neighbor," I said.

The door opened. It was the neighbor, but something was off. Then I realized he was wearing a mask of his own face. "Wait, let me take this off, it's a little stuffy," he said, but not in his own voice, in the kid's, and I realized it was my voice, my kid voice, that is, the same as the trick-or-treater. He took off his mask. But the face below wasn't the neighbor's, it was mine. Me as I am now.

"What can I do for you?" I asked myself in the voice of my childhood.

***

Billing Dispute

I called the utility company to discuss a dispute with my bill. After an interminable wait on hold, where all the music seemed to be sung by Michael McDonald, a customer service rep finally picked up. "Hello, my name is Ricky. How can I help you today?"

There was something familiar about that voice, but I couldn't place it.

I told him there was a problem with my bill and gave him my account info.

"All right," he said, "give me a moment while I pull up your record."

That voice. I figured out who it sounded like. It was a dead ringer for the voice of the neighbor. But I was pretty sure the neighbor didn't work for the utility company, and even if he did, what are the odds that I'd get him?

"Sorry for the delay, it'll only be a little longer," the customer service rep said. Then, as if he had read my mind, he added, "Boy, it's really hot here in Manila today. How's the weather where you are?"

"Oh, fine," I said. "I don't think Brooklyn ever gets as hot as Manila."

"All right, Mr. Cherches, I have your record in front of me. How can I help you?"

I explained the problem with the bill. It clearly was an error. It was more than double my previous bill, and my usage pattern hadn't changed at all.

"All right, let me review that," he said. "Please allow me to put you on hold."

"All right," I said, and was greeted in return by Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

He came back on the line. "Sorry for the delay. I have reviewed your bill and determined there is no problem."

"What do you mean no problem?"

"Based on the cost per unit, the total is correct for your usage during this billing period."

"That's the problem," I said. "The usage number can't be correct."

"Oh, I can assure you, sir, that number is correct. The usage number is always correct."

"What, I'm just supposed to believe you?"

"I have worked for this company for many years, sir. I am in a position to know."

"Well this is one thing you don't know. So what are my options?"

"You have no options, sir."

That arrogant little twit. And "hot in Manila" notwithstanding, that really sounded like the neighbor. Whoever it was, I figured he wasn't the final authority, so I said, "Is there someone I can speak to who has more authority?" I realize I was beginning to sound like a Karen, but I used to work in customer service, and I know there's always a superior with more authority.

"There is nobody with more authority," he said.

I was livid. But what could I do, at least on this phone call, at this time? "All right," I said, "I'll deal with this some other way."

"There is no other way," he said.

"Well, thanks for your help anyway," I said.

"You're very welcome. Is there anything else I can help you with today?"

"Hell no!"

"Thank you. You will shortly be sent a brief survey about your experience with us today. We hope you'll take the time to provide your feedback." Then the call was dropped.

About a minute later, my doorbell rang. "Who is it?" I asked.

"Your neighbor." I opened the door. The neighbor handed me a large manila envelope. "Here's your survey," he said. "Please return it by 3 PM today." Then he added, "Magandang araw!"

Author Bio

strange bird


Peter Cherches' "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; and "Collected Stories and The Most Beautiful Beach in Brazil" appeared in Issue 83. His next book, Things, a collection of experimental short prose and poetry, will be published in April by Bamboo Dart Press.