Peter Cherches

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 (2020). His writing has also appeared in scores of magazines, anthologies and websites, including  Harper’s, BombSemiotext(e), and Fiction International, as well as Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 website and anthology. His latest book is Masks: Stories from a Pandemic (Bamboo Dart Press, 2022). He is a native of Brooklyn, New York.

The Tablecloth

When I was in my twenties I dated enough to have had my share of nightmare dates as well as weird ones. There’s a difference between the two. With a nightmare date, the other party is the nightmare—maybe they’re psychotic, paranoid, humorless, negative, or oversensitive. Maybe politically repugnant. A person you misjudged when you asked them out, who is annoying if not unbearable to be with, someone you can’t wait to get away from. Weird dates, on the other hand, aren’t always bad, sometimes they’re amusing, but, well, weird. The person you’re with isn’t weird, circumstances become so.

            One of the weirdest dates I remember took place in the late ’70s, when I was working on my MFA in fiction writing. I had asked Connie, from the poetry program, out. Poets and fiction writers were always going out with each other, casually dating or forming relationships, much more so than within their own genres. You don’t want to shit where you eat, or vice versa. You don’t want to go on a date with someone you’re going to see in a workshop the next day. You don’t want to publicly critique the work of someone you’re sleeping with.

            We went to dinner at an Italian restaurant near the school, nothing fancy, but nice enough, especially on a student budget. Before dinner, we had attended a reading on campus by a visiting Estonian poet, big, burly, and bushy blond bearded, who read the original version of each poem followed by a translation, delivered in heavily accented English. He said, “Even if you don’t understand Estonian, please listen for the music.” We walked over to the restaurant afterwards.

            Connie was laidback and low-key, and very smart, with a great sense of humor, the kind of woman I was often attracted to, a calming contrast to my own anxious nature. She was a WASP from somewhere in the Midwest (I knew where then, but the years have erased the location), a small city. She came from a financially comfortable family, somewhat more well off than my own solidly middle class Brooklyn Jewish one. We gossiped about our respective classmates and the politics of the program. I was pretty hungry, so when the waiter brought us some bread and butter I started right in on it. We ordered an antipasto to share, she chose a rigatoni special with eggplant and pancetta for her main, and I got the lasagna verde.

            After we finished the antipasto, Connie excused herself and went to the bathroom. I amused myself with another piece of buttered bread.

            After Connie had been away from the table for a while, it happened. Out of nowhere a pigeon flew over my table and shat right on the tablecloth. How the pigeon got in the restaurant, I had no idea, but it was gone without a trace right after it had dropped its guano. The stain was disgusting, an irregular splotch with jagged edges, off-white with some streaks of yellow and little brown speckles. It reminded me of a crude attempt at a Clyfford Still painting.

            Just then I saw Connie returning to the table. As she took her seat, I said, “You won’t believe what happened while you were gone.”

            “What?”

            “A pigeon flew in and took a shit on the tablecloth.”

            “What?!”

            I pointed at the stain on the tablecloth. “Look!”

            She looked. “Is that pigeon poop?”

            Poop? You know she wasn’t a native New Yorker. “Of course it is! It’s from the pigeon that flew over the table.”

            She looked again. “I guess from a certain angle it kinda looks like pigeon poop.”

            “Kinda? Of course it’s pigeon shit. Why would I lie about such a thing?”

            “Oh, I have no reason to doubt you if that’s what you say it is.”

            “I’m gonna call the waiter over.” I caught the waiter’s eye and called him over. “Excuse me.”

            The waiter came over. “Yes, sir, what can I do for you?”

            I told him the story. “I don’t know how it got in here, but a pigeon flew over the table and shit right on the tablecloth.” I pointed at the stain.

            He looked. “I don’t think that’s pigeon droppings,” he said. “It looks to me like a shmear of butter with some crumbs from the bread crust mixed in.”

            Shmear? What kind of Italian waiter says shmear? All right, it was New York, after all.

            “That’s no bread and butter! That’s pigeon shit!” I replied.

            Just then a guy from another table yelled over at us, “Excuse me, can you keep it down? We can’t enjoy our chicken cacciatore while you’re yelling about pigeon shit!”

            I didn’t realize how loud my voice had gotten, but I couldn’t argue with him. The guano stain was making me lose my own appetite. “Sorry,” I yelled back.

            Connie also made contact with the other table. “How’s the chicken, by the way? I was thinking of ordering it, but I went for the rigatoni special instead.”

            “It’s great,” the woman at the other table answered.

            “Getting back to the problem at hand,” I said to the waiter, “would it be possible to change the tablecloth?”

            “Let me talk to the manager,” he said, and walked away.

            “Let’s hope the manager can make things right,” I told Connie.

            “I’ve got my fingers crossed,” she said.

            We sat in silence, and soon a big guy in a black suit came over. “Your waiter, Tony, tells me there’s a problem.”

            “Yes, as I told Tony, a pigeon flew in and took a dump on the tablecloth, so we’d like to get it changed.”

            He looked at the tablecloth. “That looks like a food stain to me.”

            “I saw the pigeon with my own eyes,” I said.

            “Did you also see the pigeon?” he asked Connie.

            “No, I was in the bathroom when it happened.”

            “Did anybody else see it?”

            “How should I know?” I replied.

            The manager called over to another table near ours. “Excuse me, sorry to bother you. Did you folks see a pigeon flying around the room a few minutes ago?”

            “No,” the couple said in unison.

            “Well,” I said, “it was very quick. But all I’m asking is if we can get a new tablecloth.”

            The manager said, “Normally I’d be happy to accommodate you, but it’s the end of service, and all the other tablecloths are dirty and ready for the laundry.”

            “I’d settle for one of those,” I said. “A marinara stain is preferable to pigeon shit.”

            A guy at yet another table called over. “Can you watch your language? We got kids here.”

            The manager said, “Sorry, we can’t do that. It’s against the health regulations. We’d get a citation.”

            “But it’s not against the regulations to let people eat at a table full of pigeon, um, droppings?”

            “We’ll just have to agree to disagree about the nature of the stain,” he said, and walked away.

            I’m sure I flushed red. “The nerve of that guy!” I said to Connie.

            “Let’s just try to ignore it,” she said, calmly.

            I considered arguing with her about it. As much as I liked calm, laidback women, I also liked women who could give me a run for my money in an argument. But I didn’t think Connie had the makings of a sparring partner, so I held my peace.

            Just then the waiter arrived with our entrees. “Rigatoni for the lady,” he said as he put the plate in front of Connie. “And lasagna verde al forno for the gentleman. Is there anything else I can get you?”

            I looked at Connie, who shook her head. I bit my tongue and said, “No thanks.”

            “Buon appetito,” he said, and walked away.

            Connie started eating her rigatoni while I looked at my lasagna. “This is really good,” she said.

            I picked at the lasagna, took a few small bites, but I just couldn’t eat it when push came to shove. The pigeon shit had made me lose my appetite.

            We talked about literary awards and conferences and retreats while she enjoyed her rigatoni and I tried to keep my eyes off both the lasagna and the stain.

            When Connie’s plate was clean, the waiter returned. He saw my barely touched lasagna.

            “Was everything all right?” he asked, staring straight at me.

            “Oh, just fine,” I said, forcing myself to take a diplomatic approach. “I guess I just wasn’t that hungry.”

            “Would you like us to pack it up for you to take home?”

            “I don’t think…”

            “Sure, why not,” Connie said, looking at me. “No point in letting it go to waste.”

            “Sure,” I said, resigned.

            “Can I get you any dessert or coffee?” Tony asked.

            I looked at Connie. “Would you like coffee or dessert,” I asked her lugubriously, hoping she’d get the message and say no.

            “I don’t think so,” she said, to my great relief.

            “Then I’ll get this packed up for you and be right back with the check,” he said, and took my lasagna plate with him. He returned a few minutes later with the check and the bag.

            I picked up the check. “I’ll take care of this,” I said. Now, mind you, this was a time when a check could become a bone of sexual politics contention, it no longer being safe to assume that the man should pay for dinner.

            “Oh no,” she said, “I thought we were going Dutch.”

            “You can get the next one,” I said, and she didn’t protest any further.

            We left the restaurant and I walked Connie back to her building, not far from the restaurant. As we were parting she gave me a peck on the cheek. “Well, thanks for a really interesting evening!”

            “That it was,” I said, and headed toward the subway a few blocks away, with my doggie bag.

            In the end, I never ate that leftover lasagna. For two days I’d take it out of the fridge to heat up, look at it, and all I could think about was that pigeon shit stain on the tablecloth, so I threw it out on day three.

            I never had a second date with Connie, neither of us ever brought it up, but we continued our cordial chats whenever we’d meet in the student lounge. We lost touch after we got our degrees, but I followed her career. She was one of the real success stories from the program. Connie’s now a distinguished full professor at a big Midwestern university, has won some of the most prestigious poetry awards and been nominated for most of the others. According to her biography, her poems have been translated into more than 15 languages. Her daughter Katie made last year’s “30 Novelists Under 40” list.

            The Italian restaurant finally closed about five years ago, after a successful 70-year run.

            As for me, never again has a pigeon taken a crap on my dinner table. On the right shoulder of my Harris tweed overcoat, yes.

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