“Coffee Malfunction,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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Within seconds of Marie’s butt hitting the dining room chair, Dan said, “The coffee’s probably near ready. Anybody else?”

“Seriously?” Kate said. “We just sat down. Finally! We finally all sat down.”

“Be right back,” Dan said.

Sure enough, the cantankerous coffee pot chose that exact moment to erupt. Rivulets of grainy blackish brew ran in multiple directions across the kitchen countertops, into the crack between the counter and the stove, down the cabinets and across the floor.

“Shit,” said Dan. “Total explosion.”

“You’re fucking kidding me,” Madeline said, leaping to her feet. “I’m coming.”

“Mom, Please stay here. Please.” The barely-contained flood of tears soaked Kate’s voice.

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“No, she’s right,” Dan said. “I got this.” Though he continued to stand motionless, holding a dish towel and staring blankly at the outpouring before him.

“Dan, can you come back in here, too? Please can you come in here? Can we all just sit here, together, at the breakfast table for a few minutes?” Kate implored.

Dan did not respond, and Kate turned to her mother, “Can you ask him? Can you please get him to just come sit down?”

Without a second’s hesitation or a thought in her mind, Madeline turned in her chair and faced into the kitchen. “Dan. Please. I’ll clean it up later. Just leave it. Please come sit down.”

The house held its breath. Dan slowly put the towel on the kitchen counter. Slowly he walked the few steps into the dining room, pulled out a chair, and sat at the head of the table, folding his hands in his lap. No one moved.

Kate picked up her fork to resume her Christmas breakfast, and with that, Dan shoved himself back in his chair and spit in a low, tightly-coiled whisper: “Do you feel better now, Kate? Do you feel better now that you’ve ordered everyone around and gotten exactly what you wanted? Even though it’s fucking crazy? It’s fucking crazy that there’s coffee spilling all over the kitchen, but you got what you wanted.”

Kate exploded into tears, exploded out of her chair, exploded from the room at a gallop, her mother a hair’s breath of explosion behind her, reaching out her arms and calling her daughter’s name.

The house split in two. In one part, two women raced through the living room and tore up the stairway in a rumpus of noise and limbs and sobs and entreaties. In the other part, three people sat in motionless silence, their eyes locked to their laps.

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photos by Harry Callahan of his wife Eleanor

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