Our inaugural issue features the work of Peter Cherches. Called “one of the innovators of the short short story” by Publishers Weekly, Peter Cherches is the author of Whistler's Mother's Son (Pelekinesis, 2020). Over the past 40 years, his writing, both fiction and nonfiction, has appeared in dozens of magazines, anthologies and websites. His first recording as a jazz vocalist, Mercerized! Songs of Johnny Mercer, was released in 2016. He is the author of three previous prose collections, including Lift Your Right Arm and Autobiography Without Words, both published by Pelekinesis.
I’ve learned that I’m wanted—dead or alive. How did this turn of events come about? Did I commit an offense, or am I just being defensive? Was I in the right place at the wrong time, with one finger in the orifice of eternity, or had I merely put a finger to the pulse of time, hoping to fill the void (it’s my void and I’ll do what I want) with problems, or perhaps a meaningless death?
Might I be mistaken? Did I actually give the finger to eternity, flip the bird to the ages, as it were, or was it just my imagination? What’s the problem? What’s my problem? What’s yours? A perfect Manhattan, neat? Will you settle for an imperfect Brooklyn, messy?
I’ve got a great big paradigm shift in the works, toiling away at eternity after years of slaving away at the small details, the minor ones, the insignificant ones. Ah, eternity—that was my first mistake, my Achilles heel! I should have stuck to what I knew, or, at least, could imagine. Write about what you know, they told me, that’s the first rule. The cardinal rule. The oriole rule. But another voice told me to up the ante, to sign the contract with the infinite, and there I rose to the challenge, hoisted my quill, and stepped out of my league.
Or did I? I think I know just about as much of eternity as anybody in this hick burg known as the here and now. I had been suckered by the promise of—not vast riches, no, something more seductive, the chance for a glimpse of an abstract perfection. Just a glimpse. I acknowledged the futility, but refused give up hope.
So here I am, with a price on my head, a significant markdown, no less, and nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. Waiting for what may or may not be the inevitable, my appointment with Destiny.
Then, as soon as I said it, she walked through the door: Destiny Lamour, my Destiny.
“You’re fifteen minutes late,” I told her.
“What’s fifteen minutes compared to eternity?” she replied. Then she raised her pistol and plugged me so full of holes that I can’t
I heard my doorbell ring earlier this morning. I was still wearing my Dr. Dentons, as I was planning a lazy morning, though, incongruously perhaps, I was already shod in my Doc Martens, an attempt to pepper my lassitude with an air of get-up-and-go. I opened the door, and standing there was a sexy nurse, ’50s-style Julie London sexy, with a stethoscope around her neck, strategically placed to add a touch of mystery to her low-cut lab coat. “I’m Dr. Dolly,” she said—and I silently cursed myself for my sexist assumption that she was more RN than MD—“and I represent a line of Doc Johnson’s sex aids.” Well, that Doc Johnson sure gets around, I thought, first dictionaries and now sex aids. I was ready to be her Boswell.
“Well, hello Dolly,” I said, waving her in, ready to examine her line, hoping she was prepared to reciprocate. She walked through the threshold, but she was gone in a flash, before I could sing “Dr. Feelgood.”
“Hey, what the…,” I exclaimed as I turned my head and saw her on the sofa, a pre-Castro convertible, shtupping the vacuum cleaner salesman. You see, I had let this Hoover hawker in only minutes earlier, and now the vacuum guy and the good doctor, and I mean good, were raising dust on my couch.
The nerve, I thought, as I averted my eyes from the sofa and stared aghast at the pile of dirt the vacuum guy had deposited on my carpet in order to demonstrate the prowess of his machine.
A thing had a dream. This thing dreamed it was a different thing.
It was a discomfiting dream. Not quite a nightmare. Not terrifying. But certainly not pleasant.
When you’re one thing, when your entire being, your entire sense of self, is bound with your sense of the very thing you are, to be something else, to even imagine yourself something else, or dream it, can be a source of great anxiety.
So, while it was not quite a nightmare, it could certainly be called an anxiety dream.
It was, actually, a recurring dream, this thing’s dream. Not the same dream, exactly, but similar enough, or even same enough. That is, the thing always dreamed of being a different thing, but not the same different thing. With each dream, it was a different different thing that this thing dreamed of being. And worse, in each dream there was the knowledge of both the recurrence and the difference. That was, as a matter of fact, a great part of the dreaming thing’s anxiety, the uncertainty of difference. In the dream the thing was paralyzed by the knowledge that it had become yet another different thing, and the growing assurance that with each dream, the different things it might become would only proliferate.
Upon waking, the thing could not remember what it had been before that night’s sleep, but it carried on as if it were, indeed, always the very thing it now was.
A relatively small thing and a relatively large thing shared a table top. The relatively large thing was large in relation to the relatively small thing, but it was far from huge, and by no means humongous. The table top was relatively large, certainly larger than the relatively large thing upon it, yet if was far from humongous itself. There were many things much larger than the table top, and even more so than the relatively large thing upon it. Yet some of those large things were hardly large in relation to the really large things out there in the wide world of things. No, many of those relatively large things were relatively small in relation to the really large things, and some of those really large things were far from humongous when you consider the size of all possible things. But such musings did not concern the two things upon the table top, for they were large or small only in relation to each other, or to the table top.
A hand grabbed at the relatively small thing. A voice could be heard. “Do you mind if I have this one?”
“No, no, go right ahead,” came another voice.
Then two new hands approached the relatively large thing with fork and knife and cut it into two relatively equal portions. It was now two things, each smaller than the single thing they had had once been, but still relatively large in relation to the relatively small thing, albeit each now smaller in relation to the table top.
“Go ahead,” said the first voice to the second, “since I can start with the small thing I already have.”
So the first diner ate the relatively small thing, and the second diner ate half of the relatively large thing, until what was left was something that only had size—for all intents and purposes—in relation to the table top—and only for another minute or two at that.
I was never sleepless in Seattle, but I was, unfortunately, Breathless in Beijing.
In 1994 I went to China with my friend Harold Bakst, now deceased, whom I had met at the Columbia University MFA writing program. Harold published under the name H.R. Bakst because when he had a genre novel, a western, accepted for publication, the publisher told him that Harold didn’t really make it as a name for a writer of westerns, so instead he used his initials. The publisher apparently had no problem with a Russian-Jewish last name shared by a costume designer for Diaghilev. A couple of years earlier Harold had moved to Minneapolis for a teaching job, so after that we most often saw each other by planning overseas trips together. He was happy to leave the logistics in my hands.
We met in Shanghai, where the new part of the city, Pudong, across the river from old waterfront, The Bund, a name that gave me the creeps, was still a construction site. Then we visited Suzhou, where we took in the gardens and canals; both of us were very impressed that there was a garden named for a “humble administrator.” Personally, I wish New York had renamed the 59th Street Bridge for a nameless petty bureaucrat instead of Ed Koch. Traveling by train northward, we stopped in Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius. I can’t put my finger it, but the town had a really weird vibe. Maybe it was the cult of Mao. There were pictures of Mao everywhere, Mao souvenirs being sold on the street, miniature Mao portraits hanging from the rear view mirrors in cabs.
On the train to Beijing we met a Chinese novelist named Ya Ding, who lived and worked in France, and wrote in French. He didn’t speak English, so I conversed with him in my limited French. He was going to visit his family in Tianjin. When I got home, I read his novel Red Sorghum, which only coincidentally, or perhaps not, shared a title with a popular film that had been based on a different novel with a similar title. It was, I think, based on his childhood during the Cultural Revolution. I didn’t care for it. It was very sentimental, even when describing deprivation and cruelty.
In Beijing, Harold had a hard time keeping up with my culinary adventures. I had an agenda, a number of legendary Beijing restaurants and snack shops I wanted to hit, and when I have an agenda I simply can’t afford to feel full. Harold, who had no agenda of his own, had no problem feeling full. One afternoon, a couple of hours after lunch, I wanted to stop off at a place that was famous for their shumai. Interestingly, the further north you go, the bigger and fatter all sorts of dumplings get. You could make a Russian doll of a Cantonese shumai stuffed into a Shanghai shumai stuffed into a Beijing shumai. Harold had one of the giant shumai in our order of eight, I forced myself to eat three, and we left four.
One evening we went to a venerable lamb hot pot restaurant, Dong Lai Shun. You don’t have to order at Dong Lai Shun because all they serve is lamb hot pot, where you put you own meat and vegetables in the boiling broth and eat the meat with steamed buns. The waitress asked us what we wanted to drink by asking, “Drinky? Pijiu?” I had studied some basic Mandarin, so I knew that pijiu was beer.
“Pijiu,” I said. “Tsing Tao?”
“No Tsing Tao. Fefsta.”
I had no idea what she was saying, so I tried another brand I was familiar with.
“No Beijing. Fefsta!”
I gave up and nodded. “Fefsta!” Harold, happy to use a “Chinese” word he had learned earlier in our trip, ordered a “Schpritte.”
She brought two cans to the table, a Sprite for Harold and a Pabst Blue Ribbon, brewed under license in Beijing, for me. The Chinese may have been the pre-hipster avant garde of the PBR revival.
Harold had a very dry and subtly wicked sense of humor. At Tiananmen Square he pointed out a cop. “Let me go over and make sure we’re in the place where they killed all those protesters.” At The Forbidden City I was disappointed that Roger Moore had recently replaced Peter Ustinov as the voice of the audio guide.
I took care of arranging a tour to the Great Wall. There were tours for foreign tourists that cost about $50 a head and lasted about seven hours. But I learned there was also a local tour that was much cheaper, under $10, but was warned there was no English guide. The tour however, lasted about 11 hours and included a number of stops. Harold was game for trying the local experience, so we bought our tickets a day in advance. We got to the bus at about 7:45 in the morning as the tour was scheduled to depart at 8. I showed our tickets to a woman who looked official, and she pointed us to the right bus. We got on, and it was about half full. Almost all the other passengers were men in drab gray suits wearing gray caps. I think the style of headgear is known as an ivy cap (I looked it up), they type I often wear, sleeker than a newsboy cap.
By 8:15 we hadn’t yet left. Someone who spoke a bit of English explained, “Wait for bus full.” Who knew how long that could take? Harold said to me, “Are you sure they aren’t taking us to a work camp?”
Finally, more people came on the bus, some families, some couples, a few more men in gray, and we left at 8:30.
Our first stop was at what appeared to be an amusement park. We had no idea what it was all about, but everybody was lining up for a ride of some sort. Luckily, a guy with a young son from the tour came up to us. The guy was wearing khakis, sneakers, a polo and a baseball cap. He explained that he was originally Taiwanese, but he’d been living in California for some years and was now teaching for a year in one of the northeastern provinces. His eight-year-old son was brilliant. He was fluent in Mandarin as well as English and all the women on the tour doted on him. The two of them took us under their wings and explained everything about the tour.
Our English guides had found us! If not for them, the tour still would have been interesting, a way to see what locals expect from a day tour, but we’d have been generally clueless about what we were seeing. The teacher explained that the men in drab suits were government workers from the provinces. They would sometimes be sent to Beijing on business and this was one way they’d spend their free time, a big splurge.
Anyway, the ride was like one of those old Dante’s Inferno-type attractions, a boat ride through a Chinese version of Hell. All I can remember are some monsters apparently lunging toward the mechanical boats, eliciting a mix of screams and giggles.
I may have the chronology wrong, but who the hell cares? Our next stop was a little museum of scenes from the popular Chinese classical novel (18th Century) Dream of the Red Chamber. The kid explained the significance of each tableau. He hadn’t read the book, but he’d seen a recent miniseries in Mandarin.
Sometime in the afternoon we finally got to the Great Wall, where we had about an hour on our own to stroll the wall and take in the views.
On the way back to Beijing we stopped off at a museum of Mao memorabilia.
We had dinner that night at one of Beijing’s most famous Peking Duck restaurants. It was a huge place and could serve up to 2,000 diners at the time.
The only thing I remember besides the scale of the place was the music. The Chinese had apparently devised a new torture. We had to listen to the entire Kenny G Breathless album throughout our dinner. I had to explain to Harold who Kenny G was.
It made sense. The Chinese seem to revel in the most sentimental of Western music. I’d hear Paul Mauriat’s “Love is Blue” in every hotel elevator. The Carpenters were huge in China, and Harold had broken the heart of a teenage boy at “English Corner” in a Shanghai park when he mentioned that Karen was dead. I’ve always suspected that the melody of every Chinese pop song was a variant of “I Will Follow Him.”
When we left the restaurant, we passed some vendors selling bootleg CDs on the street. They all had plenty of Kenny G.