October 2: “Signs of Devotion” by Maxine Chernoff

Happy Sunday, Story366! Today was a pretty marvelous day, one I spent with my family, a day in which the Cubs wrapped their regular season, and a day I got to do some reading and some writing.

I also did something I rarely do: I started a new TV show tonight. The show? Westworld. I’d been interested in this show since I heard about it, as I’m a fan of the original movie, the Michael Crighton flick with Yul Brenner and James Brolin. Plus, it’s been produced, written, etc., by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, and those guys are pretty solid, bringing us Inception, Memento, the Dark Knight movies, and so forth. I also just found out that Charles Yu, a writer I’ve known for a while, is also doing some writing for the show. Plus, with Game of Thrones gone until June and all the rest of the shows I watch on binge mode, I was ready for a new weekly serial.

The only real hitch is I wanted Karen to watch with me. We haven’t watched a show together in years, not a drama, anyway (we both like Kimmie Schmidt), not since the tragedy that was the showed called Lost. I posited this plan, the Westworld plan, about a month ago, then reminded her this past week. Today, it was always in my mind that we’d watch the first episode together, and at 7:40, I walked into the living room and said, “So, we gonna watch Westworld together?”

Clearly, Karen was not thinking about Westworld today. Not in the front nor back of her mind. I was finished reading from today’s book and was ready to take in some high-quality sci-fi drama; Karen was watching How to Marry a Millionaire. Karen and I were at a crossroads. She was busy, watching a light comedy in the background, wanting to have a relaxing couple of hours before she went to bed. Me, I wanted intensity in the form of filmed fiction. After we agreed to record tonight’s first episode, Karen called to me in the other room and said, “You know what? Let’s do it.”

After, I’m really impressed with the show. Since this isn’t a blog about TV—hey, maybe I’ll do Episode365 next year—I won’t go into it much here. But I liked it, will watch next week, can see myself finishing (often, I start shows and quit after one episode—I’m look at you, 24). Karen seemed to like the show, but … probably wasn’t ready for that type of program at that particular time. And this is the different between she and I: Karen noted that she now had to go to bed, late on a Sunday, thinking about the nature of life, the nature of God, what’s decent in the world, what is true human nature, etc. Me? I was like, “Wow! That was awesome! Did you see all those gunfights and/or boobs?!” Karen went to bed. I’m writing this post.

Today’s entry brings us Maxine Chernoff and the title story from her collection Signs of Devotion, out from Simon and Schuster. I’ve read Chernoff’s work before, as she’s the author of a lot of books (many of them poetry collections) and a lot of stories, some of which I’ve come across in lit mags. I’ve always enjoyed her work, and after getting into this older collection today, that opinion doesn’t change.

“Signs of Devotions” is about Jerri, a woman who is having an affair with her husband’s cousin, Jeff. Jeff is staying with the couple, this leads to that, and boom, they’re engaging in this relationship while Jerri’s husband and Jeff’s kin, Dave, is at work. Really, though, it’s not as bad as it seems, not from Jerri or Chernoff’s perspective. All of this Jeff nonsense is okay because Dave is having sex with Donna, a woman he works with, something that Donna unwittingly told Jerri one day on the phone. We find this all out over the course of the story, that these are the types of people we’re dealing with. They’re middle age, or close to it, and they jus figure that really, this kind of thing happens. That’s at least what Jerri says, as she’s pretty laid back about the whole thing. In her mind, there’s a big difference between these affairs and the stability of the home—Jerri and Dave have a troubled thirteen-year-old son, Daniel, e.g.—and by troubled, I mean he’s mouthy and doesn’t want to talk to his parents much. There’s a lot at stake her, and Jerri realizes what must be the theme of the story, that this illicit sex isn’t really anything, not compared to the shitstorm that would happen if she got upset about it. Or at least that’s my thesis on Jerri: path of least resistance, even if it means swallowing your pride or hurting someone.

A lot more happens in this story, however, elements that make Chernoff’s story so believable and likable. First off, there’s Jerri’s voice, who’s so over it, but also in command. There’s the constant butting-in from Jerri’s sister, Irene, who calls at the most opportune and  inopportune times. There’s more characters, and names for these characters, more than I can remember, a lot of sub-exes to the exes, kids who are hurt by all of this (they don’t see the convenience in all this that Jerri does—they just live the broken home).

On top of all this, the story starts with someone finding sniper bullets under the magnolia tree the morning after someone heard shots. It seems like a small detail in the story, but no, Chernoff starts her story with it, brings it up (via Irene) again later. What’s the metaphor here?  The significance? I keep trying to think of it, and I have a couple of theories, none of which I want to share here (i.e., I don’t think I’m right on any of them).

I like Maxine Chernoff’s story, however, and all the stories I’ve read from Signs of Devotion. They’re about people making choices—often the bad kind—and living through the results, sometimes successfully, sometimes making things worse. This book came out in the early nineties, many of the stories well before that, and it’s easy to see the Carver influence at work here, unreliable people trying to talk their way out of the messes they’ve made, trying to pass the buck, attempting to exonerate themselves. Chernoff’s stories live lives of their own, however, feel easy, yet clever, an unpredictability present, combined with a real sense of wit and humanity. It’s a nice collection.



One thought on “October 2: “Signs of Devotion” by Maxine Chernoff

  1. Pingback: October 5: “The Pier Falls” by Mark Haddon – Story366

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