Highly regarded for her deft and humorous portrayals of the dark side of modern living, Maxine Chernoff’s latest collection is a droll, poetic field guide to the endearing and troubling aspects of human behavior. Chernoff fans will relish the sixteen new stories, and new readers will discover a wonderful assemblage of Chernoff’s likeable and contemplative characters. Chernoff continues to establish herself as a master of the short story genre with this excellent collection.
|Publisher:||Coffee House Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Maxine Chernoff was born in Chicago, Illinois in the year of 1952, where she grew up, and attended the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.She is an American novelist, writer, poet, academic and literary magazine editor. Maxine Chernoff is a professor and Chair of the Creative Writing program at San Francisco State University. With her husband, Paul Hoover, she edits the long-running literary journal New American Writing. She is the author of six books of fiction and eight books of poetry, most recently The Turning (2008) and Among the Names (2005), both from Apogee Press. She currently lives in Mill Valley, California with her husband and three children.
Read an Excerpt
Some of Her Friends That YearNEW + SELECTED STORIES
By Maxine Chernoff
COFFEE HOUSE PRESSCopyright © 2002 Maxine Chernoff
All right reserved.
Chapter OneComing Apart and Together
All the Buddhists were getting divorced that spring: first her son's favorite teacher, then her cousin's cousin, and now her neighbor. Maybe that's why Diane hated California. It was a land of temporary commitment, future disappointment, human frailty. People's lives fell apart. Endings were too frequent. No wonder she kept hearing the word "closure" bandied about. That day on the news a tough-looking police detective had announced "We want closure on this episode" over an anonymous human corpse. Was everyone here philosophical, ministerial, even the cops?
Or maybe it was the personal gray cloud that had hung over the family since it settled here. First there was the price of houses. Their new ranch home, made of wood and glass, had cost twice as much as their sturdy Cape Cod back home, as much, Diane liked to add, as an estate in Maine she'd seen advertised in the Sunday New York Times. Yet another problem: the local newspapers seemed quaint. Often the front page contained the California version of scandals: unleashed dogs at beaches, money missing from a "Save the Redwoods" fund. Did she miss the murder and mayhem of Chicago, the steadfast cold, theglaring sun?
Maybe, as her children themselves lamented, she missed a simpler life. Her sons' childhoods had been prematurely shortened by the move. After a year of grade school here, her twins were middle-schoolers with teenage anxieties and tales to tell.
"Giselle says she'll kiss my penis in the bathroom," Jeremy reported one day after school.
This news came shortly after Diane had come back from the mailbox, where she'd encountered her neighbor weeping. "What's wrong?" she had whispered to the woman she barely knew.
"First he left."
He was her "partner," a word which made Diane think of her father's business associate, chinless Larry. Their partnership had lasted forty years. Mother lode, partner ship: odd words for human ties. Had her neighbors been married or not? What did it matter when the tears were real? Still, it made Diane's brain work harder to process relationship information when no one was clearly attached, except the same-sex couples whom the mayor dutifully married each year on some day that maybe had an official name. Couples Day? Partners Day?
Her neighbor had been speaking to her all along. Occasionally Diane had caught a word like "dating" or "package" or "retreat."
"But this is too much."
"Too much?" she questioned.
"Now my dog too."
"Your dog left?" She imagined a Border collie carrying his own leash. Leashes were also de rigueur. The dog would be holding a map of hiking trails in Marin. Or nude beaches. Or kill-free shelters.
"He died. After the operation."
"Oh no," Diane commiserated. It made her truly sad that dogs died, that children grew up, that husbands seemed happier elsewhere. And in a land which flowered so abundantly, where spring came on with the gusto of an Italian opera and the growing season lasted nine months, not to flourish seemed a sin. "Failure to thrive," she pictured as a sash on her own chest.
"I'm sorry," Diane lamely offered as her neighbor hurried back to her cottage with the mail.
She'd been so impressed when she and Dan had been invited for a drink at the neighbors' elegantly simple, child-free, perfectly nestled "cottage" shortly after they'd moved in. How could their house have such a view and her and Dan's have none? Luck was a matter of inches in this land where the geography was as unsteady as people's lives. As their road curved on endlessly, houses perched closer or farther from the fronts of their property affording some a view of trees and fence and others a vista beyond. In Chicago, east had meant the lake, and everything else could be located from that fact. Which way did their house face now? Diane couldn't decide.
Whatever their location on the planet, the penis issue, as they now called it, was a subject of commentary between her and Dan in bed that night.
"Imagine an eleven-year-old girl saying that. Did you even know that was a possibility at eleven?" Dan asked, shaking his head wearily.
So many commiserating nods, so little time. So many regrets they juggled in their bedtime conversations until sleep erased their uneasiness.
"No way," she added.
"Isn't it sexual harassment?"
"What are you going to do about it?"
That was the other problem. Moral dilemmas were among Diane's duties. "I'll call the school," she vowed into her pillow.
The principal, a thick, serious woman who didn't seem indigenous to the state, wasn't available the first time Diane called.
"Did she harass you too?" Diane asked Alex the next day.
"No, she doesn't like me," Alex said matter-of-factly. He was the child with glasses. Maybe perfect eyesight or contact lenses caused troubles in life. Glasses kept a person more serious, a viewer of life's developments rather than a participant. It had cheered Diane to read that Orson Welles had been awkward and friendless in grade school. Her son with glasses was maybe a genius, the world would realize later.
"How do you know she doesn't like you?"
"She knows me too, but she just asked Jeremy."
What was Diane to say? Should she tell him that the girl who didn't like him secretly wanted to kiss his penis too, just to keep things even? "Oh," she muttered.
So many moments ended this way. Maybe "oh" could replace the period or semicolon, she thought.
When the principal called back several days later, Diane had been at the grocery store. Dan was home editing the material that gave him a convenient and portable life. Her job offer and his portability had led them here. They'd given up friends and comfortable lives for moments like these.
"Your wife left a message about a problem your son's having with another child," Ms. Brockport stated.
"Well, it's more like the other child's giving my son a problem," Dan explained.
"Could you elaborate?" the principal asked innocently enough.
"A girl is telling my son she'll kiss ... Well, another child is offering my child sexual favors," Dan said shyly.
That night in bed, Dan had made a joke about it: "I wanted to tell her that this kid is offering Jeremy a 'Lewinsky.'" Both of them laughed nervously. Half the time, it was a moral abomination; the other half a joke. Either way, it seemed to fit their new uneasiness.
In Chicago, kids took lunch money, acted wild on the playground, or chased each other relentlessly. Suddenly Diane recalled a girl there too. "Remember Sheila?" she asked Dan.
"How many stores do we own?" Jeremy had asked Diane one night during a phone call.
"Not any. Why?"
"Sheila's asking." Sheila was famous for her ardent games of chase. She was an East Indian whose father owned a chain of doughnut stores.
"Tell her we don't own stores."
"We don't have stores," Jeremy reported sadly, not making the connection between the information and the playground-chase activity. Sheila, after all, was a tradition-bound suitor. Her interest in Jeremy waned soon after the call.
Maybe it wasn't California but some change in their frontal lobes, Diane imagined, recalling the Sheila episode. As a group, they had been generally happy, at least before California, easy to please and amuse. "You all laugh so easily," her neighbor once told her. Now the family subscribed to the Discomfort Channel. Every moment contained new anxieties and questions about their adjustment. Maybe they should have moved to Denmark, land of melancholy, Diane sometimes thought.
"You're so Rubensesque," Dan whispered when she entered the kitchen that morning.
"Reuben sandwich?" Alex asked. Maybe he was the unmelancholy one, the one not chased by girls. Maybe contact with the other sex brought on melancholy. Maybe the only happy Californians were the newlyweds with the hers and hers towels and the two big mama chairs in front of the TV. But no. A colleague at work had reported to Diane that a lesbian student of hers had been battered by her partner. Was Diane aware of any more problems of this nature among the students? Should the department hold a meeting about this problem?
Why should Diane be aware of any problem? What was the probability of having such a problem? Was it greater than, lesser than, or equal to living in California for as long as humans have existed on Earth? None of her acquaintances were statisticians, so Diane would never get a reliable answer.
"Dan," she asked toward the end of the week. "Did the principal ever call?"
"A few days ago."
"You never told me."
"And you told her?"
"Sure," I did. Dan had gone tight-lipped on her. She'd have to wait until bedtime to receive more clues.
"Jeremy, did anything happen at school about Giselle?"
"Jeremy had to stay in at lunch," dependable Alex explained.
"Why was that?" Diane felt alarmed.
"We had to go to a mediator," Jeremy said calmly.
"Me and Giselle."
"What did the mediator say?"
"She told us to work it out."
"Work what out?"
"She told us to figure out what boundaries we want in our relationship."
Diane and Dan exchanged troubled glances. Of course nothing would be simple in California.
"Was that okay with you?" Dan probed. Diane was relieved at Dan's concern. Maybe he could take over as the moral compass for the family's difficult journey through their sons' adolescence. Dan was making his serious trouble face, the oddly crunched-up eyes and pursed lips of concentration.
"Sure," Jeremy shrugged.
"So what did you decide with her?" Diane asked.
"We decided not to talk for a while."
"Is that all right with you?"
Later that evening, she asked Alex for more details.
"I don't hear everything, Mom. That part was private."
Tucking Jeremy in, she asked later that evening, "Are you satisfied with how this turned out, honey, because if ..." How would she finish that sentence, she wondered, staring at her son's pajamaed back, his fragile neck.
"Sure," he answered sleepily. "It's fine."
"Do you think you'll ever want to talk to her again?"
"Maybe when I'm older."
Diane went outside and stood on the deck that she still preferred to call a porch, though porches didn't exist here. The deck, like their whole house, was in need of repair. Seen by day it looked as if it might just be swallowed up by its environment if they ignored it much longer. Some windows lacked sills. Here and there shingles hung loosely. The roof was rotting near a dining room skylight. When it rained hard, they put buckets on the rug. She imagined the place returning to pulp, trees concealing its former existence from the world, as if it were a plane lost in the jungle. Her realtor had put it right when they'd bought the place. "Better to have the worst house in the neighborhood than the best one in a bad neighborhood."
Diane looked away from the place and up into the sky, clearer on this side of the Mississippi, she'd read once. She tried to find some familiar stars, but so many things were moving overhead, clouds and airplanes she could see and telecommunication satellites she couldn't, that she got distracted. Somewhere in space, some Russians and Americans were trying to get a telescope to work properly. "A Billion-Dollar Repair," the paper had announced, was taking place right over her head.
So much up in the sky had no meaning to the casual gazer. And besides, the stars weren't needed for charting the galaxy anymore. At her own university, a perfectly ordinary-looking fellow younger than Diane herself was finding new planets and now even a new solar system without the usual props. Computers and formulae, methods Diane couldn't begin to conceive of, had been invented while she was doing what? Having children and trying to raise them? Moving to a ridiculous new location? There were new methods for everything. No wonder people wanted to seal things off before their own eyes calculated all the possible terrors of the moment. Maybe that's why their new life seemed so ... what? So full of misgivings. But she knew that wasn't what she wanted to call it, that the word she wanted needed to contain so much that it couldn't possibly bear the pressure. Maybe there would be new words soon to describe these feelings. Maybe her boys would be alive when all the old fears turned into knowledge. Maybe Dan would know what to call their new lives already. He was so good with words. Or that soulful detective she'd seen on TV, eager to give death a new name, maybe he'd come up with something she'd hear about soon on the news.
Excerpted from Some of Her Friends That Year by Maxine Chernoff Copyright © 2002 by Maxine Chernoff
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of Contents
|Some of Her Friends That Year||17|
|Coming Apart and Together||21|
|The Middle Ages||28|
|We Kill What We Love||38|
|Jewish Urban White Trash Story||49|
|Onto the Past||71|
|The Nobel Prize for Shoes||91|
|Snowflake, Come Home||97|
|Acts of Nature||99|
|From Signs of Devotion|
|The Stockholm Syndrome||138|
|Saving the Australian Elephant||144|
|The River Shannon||156|
|Somewhere Near Tucson||186|
|Where Events May Lead||193|
|Something to Admire||203|
|The Spirit of Giving||231|
|Don't Send Poems, Send Money||272|
|The Hills of Andorra||298|