Peter Cherches

I had just walked out of Russo’s, where I picked up some finocchiona and Sicilian primo sale cheese with black peppercorns, when the woman accosted me. She was trembling. It looked like fear to me, or maybe rage. I couldn’t really be sure of her age. Maybe a little older than me, maybe early seventies. She didn’t appear to be a “street person.” She was reasonably well dressed, sure the clothes were showing signs of wear and seemed to be from an earlier era that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but that was about it. At first she said it in such a low, trembling voice that I couldn’t be sure I was hearing right. “You’re Peter Cherches, aren’t you?”“What’s that?” I asked, to be sure.

She seemed to have gotten her courage up pretty quickly. Now she was yelling. “You’re Peter Cherches, aren’t you?” She pronounced “aren’t you” as “arncha.”

“Um, yes, I am,” I said.

“You’re to blame!” she yelled.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“You worked for The Equitable Life Insurance Company in the 1980s, dincha?”

“Yes,” I said, “but what am I supposed to have done?”

“You were supposed to have taken care of your policyholders! You bankrupted us, me and my husband. We lost our house. Now we live a cockroach-infested shithole.”

“What happened?”

“As if you didn’t know. They denied the claim. For my husband’s illness. It cost us a fortune. We had one of your major medical policies. And I know for a fact that you worked in the major medical department.”

“But I had nothing to do with any claims decisions. I just wrote computer programs.”

“Sure, sure, the old ‘I was just following orders’ defense. You worked for them, your computer programs were part of the system, you were part of the system, you’re complicit!”

“Can I ask you how you found me?”

“We have our ways. I’ve got a very resourceful nephew. He found an old printout of a COBOL program from Equitable Life in a dumpster outside Iron Mountain, and we really hit the jackpot. I guess God was looking out for us. In the comments section it said “Error-handling routines for MMPIS (Major Medical Policy Issue System). Author: Peter Cherches.”

“Look, I’m very sorry about your husband. When did all this happen?”

“About fourteen years ago. Two thousand and eight.”

“But I was long gone by then. And now I’m retired.”

“You’re part of the history. You’re part of the legacy. You’re part of the problem.” She paused for a few seconds, sighed, and said, “But I know you can’t do nothin’. I just needed to get it off my chest.” And having said her piece, she just walked away.

And that, in a nutshell, is the thing about jobs. No matter what you do, you’re complicit.

Peter Cherches has published five collections of fiction and creative nonfiction since 2013, most recently Masks: Stories from a Pandemic. Called “one of the innovators of the short short story” by Publishers Weekly, he’s also a jazz singer and lyricist. He’s a native of Brooklyn, New York.