Coffee and Going Home
by Ali Berlow
When I go home to visit my parents in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin it doesn’t matter how old I am, or how much more silver-gray my hair is, or that my two boys have grown into young men. When I’m home with my mom and Paul (my father) I always turn back into the pigeon-toed, tongue-tied, gangly-baby black sheep of the family. My strategy to counteract this phenomenon is a good cup of hot coffee. I remain steadfast that this daily caffeinated ritual will get me through just about anything. Coffee. And a good egg sandwich.
In my hometown, this begins with me getting up early and out of room #438 of the Best Western Hotel. I go down the elevator, shielding the fluorescent lights of the lobby, cross the parking lot and Highland Avenue over to my favorite coffee shop, EVP. When I’m there before they open up I linger in the pre-dawn shadows, sitting on the picnic table on the lawn of the abandoned yellow house next door, the one with an elm tree growing out of its front porch. I know this town, these streets, this air and light. I sleepwalk them in my dreams still. I went to high school up the block, hung out with the soccer team at the Tavern on the corner, and got my first and only perm at Fannie’s Beauty Parlor down the street. I never did that again.
It’s pure serendipity that this coffee shop across from the Best Western brews a thick, strong drink. When I’m inside their walls hung with cafe art, in this neighborhood where I still recognize the cracks in the sidewalks and I order my cup of the day, I experience a grounding moment of mature anonymity, a kind that dwells around the sanctity of caffeine and cinnamon buns and being a woman of a certain age. I feel like the adult that I’d like to think I’ve grown into and not the freckle-faced kid my parents see me as.
My coffee, I’d like it to be both a shock and sigh. The cup’s got to have good lip. Paper cups or Styrofoam are wasteful and do subtract from any drink. The liquid’s got to be more than just hot and black or taste like a melted brown crayon. I like when it has that whiff of driving past a dead skunk with the windows rolled down, sumac wet with dew, and a longing taste of invincibility and desire. With cream it should turn the color of an oak leaf in autumn, a well-worn church pew. I add a children’s teaspoon of sugar or maple syrup to slight the bitter.
In coffee’s wake my heart beats faster, my breath is quick, my tongue coated brown. The sun feels brighter, the wind and rain more romantic. My thoughts flow in a clear stream of consciousness with alert eloquence, in and out of everything from the existence of god to the pleasures of walking barefoot. And then when I go to my parents’ house and they pour a cup of coffee for me at their kitchen table, I think that maybe they do see me as all grown up after all.
And they’re older too, more frail but less afraid, and have a pretty good sense of humor about it all. And as always, they love me in their own particular way, and this, I’m only just beginning to understand.