March 2023
Leaves from My Notebook
Elaine Greensmith Jordan

Hot Coffee

I got out of the car in an unfamiliar part of town, a shabby area. A gust of wind pushed on me, telling me to get back inside. Instead I headed for the door of the bar carrying three-year-old Mia. I took five-year-old Billy by the hand, determined to remind my husband he’d promised to watch the children while I went to my meeting at the preschool. Looking back now, I know the children were my necessary shields from a truth that awaited me inside the bar.

Allen would be enjoying himself over a martini. He’d be with his friends, perhaps singing along to the folk ballads, a 38-year-old fake surfer. With no regrets for spoiling his fun, I stepped inside with the children.

It was too dark to see anything at first, but I could hear recorded music — a woman singing “Killing Me Softly.” When couples on the dance floor emerged from the blackness, I saw men holding each other close. The children tensed. I wanted to run away, but the children were clinging to me, keeping me in place — a tall mommy with a little girl in her arms and a small boy at her side, like refugees just off the boat.

Allen was at the bar with his back to us, his large bulk dominating the room. He sat slumped in a Hawaiian shirt, a bloom of cheerful color that made him look like an overweight tourist to the islands. The array of bottles reflected in a mirror behind the bar seemed welcoming as we approached, Billy’s hand sweaty in mine. I could smell a sweet deodorant odor.

The bartender, a smiling, curly-headed man in a tank top, stepped back, watching me. The sight galvanized my fury at Allen’s failing to come home and the bar’s revelations. But mostly I hated myself for being stupid, a child mother holding her toy children.

Addressing Allen’s flowered back, I spoke loudly enough to clash with the music, “Did you forget your promise to babysit tonight?”

My husband turned around and stared. He stabbed out his cigarette, grabbed Billy, and walked out into the evening. I followed and watched him approach his car — a chocolate-colored convertible at the curb — put Billy inside, and drive away. For all I knew, they were off to Honolulu.

Mia and I followed in our station wagon, heading toward home, our pretentious place resting on a perch overlooking the Pacific like a watchful seabird.

Inside, we could hear Julie Andrews singing, “The hills are alive with the sound of music,” coming from the television in the family room where Billy sat alone, watching the screen.

At the kitchen doorway, I was held back by the sight of a furious Allen standing at the sink unnaturally still. He’d stolen my rage for himself. Every detail of the kitchen pulsed: the painted dancers on my Austrian wall plates, the copper trivet on the counter, the carrot mural on the cupboard doors. The room was a frenzied gallery of malice.

Allen reached for the electric coffee-pot on the side counter, jerked it from the wall plug and raised it above his head. He was about to throw the pot of boiling coffee at me. I couldn’t move.

Suddenly, the lid from the carafe crashed to the floor and the steaming brown liquid poured down Allen’s gaily colored back. Every drop fell in slow motion, a languid stream, scalding him in a hideous punishment for this night’s humiliations.

Allen dropped to one knee, heaving for air like a man at the end of a race. I watched him hold the counter and lift himself to his feet. The overhead lighting glared; the coffee smelled; Allen moaned.

Mia and Billy appeared beside me. I touched their heads. “Daddy's hurt himself. It’s okay. I need to clean up here. You stay out of the kitchen for now.” Neither child protested. They returned to Julie Andrews, the Austrian hills, and “a song they have sung for a thousand years.”

Allen never saw a doctor for his burns, but they healed and he acted as if nothing had happened. I didn’t take the action you’d want your heroine to take — initiate a divorce and make my way as a brave single mother. Instead, I waited for somebody to step up and fix my life.

My anguish, however, led me to a therapist, where I talked about Allen and me and God, all of it. I read about women who run with wolves, women who love too much, women called codependent. Over time, I looked at the figure in my mirror and put on eyeglasses. “You mean I could proceed on my own?” She nods and starts to cry.

I divorced, took the children and left the aerie on the coast for a home I chose, where I could see anything coming from a long way off. I felt as free as if I’d been trapped in a cathode tube for 20 years and then released into full-color, hi-tech, wide-screen reality.

Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.