It’s June, it’s Friday, and it’s time for another chapter excerpt from my novel PUSHING THE RIVER. In the two weeks since I last posted, and with the help of dedicated readers/friends, I conceived of a new way to structure the book and have been hard at work. I say with hope and fear, it’s possible that I am within striking distance of a completed new draft!!
Claire, along with every other member of the family, had an irrational but intense distaste for Madeline’s coffee maker. Claire’s very first job had been in the coffee house directly across the street from her apartment, a place she had such a deep and abiding affection for that she still found any reason to drive past it more than ten years later. In the years and the motley assortment of coffee joints in the time since then, she had babied and cajoled her fair share of finicky machinery in order to produce the sumptuously rich shots of espresso and foam flourishes that kept customers standing in line for her creations.
She would not even go near Madeline’s useless behemoth.
The thing had been a gift from a long-gone beau and held no particular sentimental place in Madeline’s heart. Still, it was there; and Madeline had been raised by a woman who said “I’m too Scotch to throw it away and get a new one” enough times that it had stuck, especially considering that her mother had no Scotch ancestry whatsoever.
Each and every part of the coffeemaker required precise handling and placement – the handle of the filter basket needed to be facing forward for brewing; the lid of the basket assembly then had to be positioned just so; likewise, the lid of the coffee pot itself had to be screwed on to an exact point and then placed meticulously under the filter assembly. This so struck Madeline as an apt metaphor for nearly all aspects of her life – that great effort and painstaking care were requirements—that she never questioned the coffeemaker, nor felt put upon in carrying out the steps each morning that resulted in an excellent and deeply satisfying pot of coffee. After all, wasn’t it her own daughter who had said, “Not everything that’s really hard is also good; but everything that’s really good is also hard.”
No one could ever figure out whether it was one specific thing, or a compounding of smaller things that tipped the scales for the old coffee pot. Every so often, the scoundrel would simply refuse to allow the brewed coffee to flow smoothly into the carafe below, but would erupt like a volcano, spewing a scalding muck of boiling water and coffee grounds across the entire kitchen counter, sending rivulets down the cabinet doors and dark streams across the floor.
It had happened to everyone in the family at one time or another, and each of the family members had their own unique response: it happened to Madeline only once. When it happened to Kate, she practiced putting the various parts and pieces together over and over and over, until she was certain that she had mastered it. But once satisfied that mastery had been achieved, she promptly forgot every step of the procedure and needed a refresher course each time she started anew. John managed to be someplace else, nearly always, when a pot of coffee needed to be made — he so relished the cared-for feeling that came from someone placing a freshly-made, wonderfully warm, aromatic cup in his hand. On the other hand, if elected, he held no rancor nor possessed any fear about the crusty old pot; he approached it with an even, calm attitude, expecting that everything would turn out just fine.
Claire gave it a very wide berth. She snarled at it, scowled in its direction when she went about the business of her cooking. Truth be told, she preferred to not even pour herself a cup from a fully-finished batch, so convinced was she that the diabolical device could not be trusted under any circumstances whatsoever and was, in fact, capable of genuine Evil.
Claire’s distaste of the wicked pot was so great that she did not budge from her treetop, arty nest until she heard Madeline’s feet hit the floor of her bedroom below at approximately 6:58. Even then, Claire did not move a muscle until a safe period of time had passed, and she could descend the stairs with certainty that the morning’s fresh pot of coffee awaited. Which she generally did not drink, although she usually agreed to have Madeline pour her a cup, noting the obvious pleasure it gave her mother-in-law; but Madeline would later find the stone-cold, untouched mug squirreled away in a corner of the kitchen.
After years of managing the opening shift in coffee joints, Claire had long ago lost the ability to sleep in. She awakened each day sometime between four am. and five, and having her life spread out before her in one large room enabled her to accomplish a great deal in the hours before Madeline opened her eyes to the new day. By the time “good morning’s” passed from each of them to the other, Claire had: read passages from a variety of books that recent events brought to mind; corresponded, both on paper and via email, with people across the world who had stirred her soul into a permanent, unmovable, ferocious loyalty; written in her journal; scanned vintage anatomical drawings; continued the eternal process of organizing her thousands and thousands of photographs taken from world travels; jotted down ideas for a new children’s book she was writing; and curled up in the corner of the room so she could manage a long, impassioned, whispered conversation with her husband in a voice so hushed that Madeline would not even have the barest murmur invade her dreams.
“I have so much I need to get done today.” Claire squeezed herself into a small corner of the sofa that was closest to the door, as if the proximity to an exit and the sheer discomfort of her position would magically propel her. She cradled the cup of untouched coffee between her two hands and blew across the steaming surface.
Claire alternated between two mood states that Madeline thought of as more or less “off” and “on.” In the “off” times, Claire walked with her eyes cast on the floor. She moved with such stealth that it was nearly impossible to know where she may be in the house, or if she was even there at all. She shrugged in response to any communication directed at her. She gave the ardent impression of wishing to be invisible, or perhaps to disappear entirely. During the “on” times, she could be stunningly talkative. The shifts came as a bit of a jolt to Madeline, when the same young woman who had slunk around in the deep shadows for a time suddenly plopped down on the sofa and became downright chatty, mustering an astonishing string of words, sentences, paragraphs, ideas that were not only exceptionally articulate, but were also delivered so blindingly goddamn fast that Madeline had to concentrate especially hard on the content lest she get carried away by the breathtaking delivery itself.
She had an assortment of expressions that she peppered frequently through any and every subject she happened to be addressing, a trait Madeline found so utterly charming she waited for each new occurrence and was brought very nearly to tears by them. These included:
At all whatsoever
I mean, I feel like
I mean, are you fucking kidding me?
and Madeline’s personal favorite:
“Did you hear my big fight with John last night?” Claire asked.
“What!? No!” Madeline responded.
“Nonsense. I can’t believe you didn’t hear it. I was seriously screaming at him. Because
he was being a complete ninnyhammer, I mean, I feel like he started it because he was actually screaming into the phone at me, I don’t even remember a time when he’s yelled at me like that, ever, before, when he was that mad and yelling so loud I actually had to hold the receiver away from my ear a couple of times, I mean, are you fucking kidding me? Seriously, Madeline, it’s a little hard to believe you when you say that you didn’t hear any of this.”
“I seriously didn’t. Are you OK? Is everything OK?”
“It’s fine, it’s fine. We talked again this morning. For a long time. That’s why I’m running so late and I can’t do this, I can’t do this right now. I can’t sit down on this spot on this couch and next thing I know some sort of thing has taken possession of me, hours of our lives have passed, and I realize that once again I have fallen into the conversational vortex that exists in this room! I do not have time for this today at all whatsoever.” She paused. She shifted just slightly from her previous position of being bashed against the arm of the sofa.
“Possibly, it’s already too late,” Madeline said.
“Nonsense,” said Claire.
bottom photo: Brassai