“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

“Cozy, Cozy” new except from the novel “Pushing the River”

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Madeline glanced over at Savannah’s face and thought: “it’s slumped. Her very face is slumped, not just her body. I did not know such a thing was possible.” Not only that, but she managed to radiate jaw-clenched, seething malcontent like waves carrying forth from a gigantic ocean liner. It was impossible to be in the room, which was quite large, and not know the intense level of her well-broadcast suffering.

Madeline’s phone rang in the other room. When she saw the name on her caller ID, she walked to the back of the house to answer. “Hi,” she said.

“Don’t tell anyone that it’s me. Please. Please, Maddie.” Billie’s voice was so soft, so nearly not there at all.

“What’s going on, Billie? How are you?”

Billie cried quietly on the other end of the line for quite a while. “I am so sorry, Maddie. So so sorry. I’ve let everybody down. Again. I’ve let everybody down again.”

“Everybody wants you here,” was Madeline’s first lie. “But everybody understands,” was her second.

Billie’s gentle crying turned to great, racking sobs; she audibly snorted the torrent of liquid that poured from her nose. “I just can’t do it. I can’t. I can’t I can’t I can’t.”

“Are you OK, Billie? Are you someplace safe?”

“I can’t I can’t I can’t. I’m so so sorry.”

“Your sister is worried about you. Can you call her? Or text her? Can you text Savannah? Wish her a good Christmas? Can you think about doing that? Try to do it before the end of the day tomorrow. Just think about it. Please just think about it, OK?”

“Don’t tell anyone I called,” Billie said, and abruptly hung up.

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Madeline remained in the back room, weighing the pros and cons of keeping the call to herself. Talk about your lose-lose, she thought. Marie counted on knowing every single thing, all the time, even when the information made her infinitely more miserable.

Just then, Marie stealthed into the room and said to Madeline, “Who was that? Was that my mother?”

“I’m not sure,” Madeline replied. “Depends on: what’s the right answer to that question?”

“God damn it!” Marie said. “What did she say?”

“Not much. She doesn’t sound good. I think it’s a safe bet that we won’t be seeing her. I tried to get her to think about talking to her sister, and to Savannah.”

“Where is she? What else did she say?”

“She didn’t say much, Marie. Mostly she cried. And repeatedly apologized. Repeatedly.”

The two women looked at one another across the dark expanse of the room, saying nothing. Marie stealthed back out, leaving Madeline to gaze out at the back yard, the fat colored lights ablaze in the neighbor’s tall pine.

Right after Madeline returned to the living room and took her seat on the couch, the front door opened, and Dan came in. “Fuck, I should have known,” Madeline thought. She knew well by then that any time Dan spent with any piece of his family entailed a heavy amount of drinking on his part – plenty in their presence to manage the togetherness, and even more in the car as he drove to his next destination. A particularly tough family gathering could end up being a three-to-five-cans-in-the-car adventure. Not until he walked through the door did Madeline realize it: she had held out the hope that Christmas Eve would be different, that maybe there would be warmth and traditions and laughter and such that would have him sipping daintily at a homemade toddy instead of slugging back brew after brew.

Dan still perplexed her as a drunk. Large amounts of alcohol seemed to render him both woozy and intense. There was a coiled-snake vibe, ready at any second to strike, hard, unless he happened to slip into a peaceful stupor instead. He plopped onto the couch next to her, but sat at the very edge, so he needed to turn his head to see her. “Wow,” he said. “Look at this cozy family scene.”

“Yep,” Madeline said. “It is.” It was both a command and a plea.

“Cozy, cozy.”

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center photo of F. Scott Fitzgerald and family

Life Gets in the Way, and Sometimes, That’s Just Fine

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Meh.  The formation of ideas into words, into sentences, into pages that comprised my writing of this third novel for a good chuck of time has come to a temporary halt.  Sigh.  I know this is how it goes for me.  At times it flows, and the flow can proceed along – sometimes at a pace that surprises me, other times at a crawl – but still it proceeds, without substantial interruption.

But the halts do come.  For me, they do.  I am not talking about “writer’s block;” I am talking about the times – now being one of them – where life gets squarely in the way of being able to find and maintain the wide open mental spaces necessary for the creative picture to remain in focus,  not to become too blurry for a while, too hazy-in-the-distance, just out of reach.

It’s! the! Holidays!  With their sundry boisterous chaos.

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Some of the chaos is magnificent, such as the nearly-two-week Thanksgiving visit from my daughter, soon to be followed up by another for Christmas; and the shelving of our usual family board games at the holidays in favor of being fascinated by a one-year-old baby who is fascinated by everything.

Some of the chaos is wrenching, such as the enormous suffering of many of the people I work with in my day job as a clinical social worker.

The words will flow again.   And though I know this from history, part of me remains patient while another part sighs internally and drums its fingers.

In the meantime, let us all make merry, and rejoice for the gifts we have.  In lieu of words, I offer some pictures of twinkly lights from my very own corner of the world – in this case, my own block in Evanston, IL.

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