On the Boardwalk
I took the subway to Brighton Beach, to take a walk along the boardwalk. I love strolling with an ocean view, yet I do it in Brooklyn so infrequently, I don’t know why since it’s only about a twenty-minute ride away. I think this was the first time in several years.
I usually start at Brighton 7th Street, just off the el, and head toward Coney Island. Sometimes I stop off at one of the Russian delis to pick up a kvass, the lightly carbonated soft drink made from fermented bread. Sometimes I start or end with lunch at one of the Georgian restaurants, maybe for a lyulya kebab and some red lobio—red beans with a walnut and garlic sauce.
So I climbed the steps to the boardwalk and started heading west, drinking my kvass. It was a beautiful late-fall day, clear, sunny, and not too cold, and I was feeling fit as a fiddle, all’s right with the world. Few things relax me like a walk in the sea air.
After a few minutes my phone pinged, a text. I decided to stop at a bench to check my phone. It was just my dentist’s office, to reconfirm my appointment. I put the phone back in my shoulder bag, and as I got up I noticed there was a little metal plaque on the bench. I had forgotten about those, little memorial plaques sponsored by friends of departed denizens of the boardwalk, perhaps for a donation toward upkeep. This one said “In memory of Mildred Altenberg, 1923−97. She has joined the sunlight.” I thought that was very sweet and poetic.
As I resumed my walk, I decided to read the plaques as I passed the benches. The next one said “The favorite bench of Solly Chaiken, 1938−2011, always a macher, never a pisher.” The one after that said “In loving memory of Ilya Grinberg, 1933−2014. Who’ll feed the pigeons now?”
They went on like that, tributes to Jewish and Russian names, from devoted friends and family. I was feeling really good by this point. How nice, all these people gone but never forgotten on the boardwalk.
Then I came upon one that really threw me for a loop. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but there it was: “In memory of Peter Cherches, 1956−2019, more than just a greengrocer.”
What the fuck? It was bad enough that I had supposedly died in 2019, but a greengrocer? Surely this must be some kind of practical joke.
But who would pull a stunt like that? I’m not a known quantity on the boardwalk, I just visit once in a blue moon. And what are the odds I’d even stumble upon that particular bench?
Obviously I didn’t die in 2019. If I had I wouldn’t be writing this. But where the hell did the greengrocer come from? I’ve been a teacher, a computer programmer, a proofreader, even a customer service rep for the electric company, but never a greengrocer.
Could it be a coincidence? Come on, two Peter Chercheses in Brooklyn, both born in the same year? Impossible. Granted, ever since the floodgates of Russian immigration opened some years ago the name Cherches has become much more common than it was in my childhood, but still.
This was too much for me. It was weirding me out. I couldn’t go on with my walk. So I headed back to Brighton Beach Avenue, the main shopping drag, toward the subway. After I had walked a block or two I noticed a little produce shop with a sign that said “Cherkes Fancy Fruits and Vegetables.” That’s got to be it, I thought, Cherkes, not Cherches.
I stepped inside. There was a young woman at the register. “Excuse me,” I said, “was the owner of this store named Peter Cherkes?”
“Yes,” she said, “but he died. I never knew him, I’ve only been working here a year, but his son Lev still runs the shop. He should be back in about a half hour.”
“Can you give him a message?” I asked the woman.
“Sure,” she said. “What is it?”
“Tell him there’s a typo on his father’s bench.”
I couldn’t stop looking at it. I was mesmerized. If it were a person, my unwavering gaze would surely be beyond the bounds of propriety, a social faux pas of gargantuan proportions.
It really had a hold on me. So much, in fact, that I sang it, sotto voce, as I stared, the Smokey Robinson song, of course.
It had a certain kind of beauty, that special kind, you know, the kind where one single strategically placed imperfection makes all the difference in the world?
It was mysterious, an enigma, and that only made me more obsessed. I sensed there were vast secrets to be mined if I could only find the key.
I had lost all sense of proportion. I was ready to do anything, to up-end my life, give up everything I’d previously held sacred. My principles, my dreams, they were all on the table. Even suicide. Yes, I was prepared to die, if that’s what was required of me.
As I contemplated suicide, the waitress came by and asked, “Are you still workin’ on that, hon?”
That Other Word
As I write my memoirs and face the prospect of baring the most intimate details of my life, there is one incident of my young adulthood that will be missing from any manuscript I do produce, the one thing I’m not prepared to reveal. I won’t mince words: it was a crime.
And nobody knows about it. I mean, nobody knows I did it. Oh, everybody knew there was a crime. It was in all the papers. But, as fate would have it, there were no witnesses and nothing to tie me to the crime.
I know what you’re thinking: that an innocent man faced the consequences of my actions. But I can assure you, no perpetrator was ever found. It was an unsolved case. I’m writing here about a cold case. So I wasn’t racked with guilt over the fate of an innocent man. The fate of the victims, of course, would occasionally enter my thoughts; I’m not an unfeeling monster, after all.
The newspapers milked the story for weeks, maybe even months. It was mostly about how there had been no break in the case. Really, the articles were flimsy excuses for an unrelenting string of invective against the perpetrator, so I took it personally. The articles harped on things like “brutality.” “Gruesome,” I’m happy to report, was used much more sparingly.
Sure I had my regrets, but the newspaper articles were only adding insult to injury. They consistently referred to my act as “heinous.”
My one solace was that never, not once, did that other word—the word that, had it been used, just might have made me lose it completely and perhaps even strike again—appear in any of the articles, or even in the outraged editorials. “Ghoulish.”
After the Ball
After the ball was over, the chain returned to its master.
Called “one of the innovators of the short short story” by Publishers Weekly, Peter Cherches has published three volumes of short prose fiction with Pelekinesis since 2013, most recently Whistler’s Mother’s Son. His writing has also appeared in scores of publications, including Harper’s, Flash, Fence, Bomb, Semiotext(e), Fiction International, and Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 website and anthology. Masks, a short collection of pandemic stories, was published by Bamboo Dart Press in March.
Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Candela.