by Jesse Millner
I didn’t start drinking coffee until I was in my early thirties. I’d get up in the morning and brew in an old steel pot, then pour it into a “Virginia Is For Lovers” cup with a bright, red heart on it. The final touch was a shot of Jim Beam, which helped ease the caffeine jitters. After a couple cups of java, I’d be a wide-awake drunk.
There was something really beautiful about those drunken mornings. I lived in Chicago and on those cold winter dawns when everything smoked, when the sky was dark blue and frigid, during those hours the weather outside matched the desolation I felt inside in those frozen fields of my body. I’d sit by a living room window and sip my coffee as my wife slept and an occasional car slipped down Addison Street. I loved the taste of the Maxwell House and bourbon, the bitter burning brew.
By the winter of 1986, the drunken mornings had stretched out for years and the shot of Jim Beam flavoring my coffee had become two shots, but the extra bourbon could not stop my hands from shaking, could not stop my first wife from leaving, could not keep me from losing my job.
In March of 1986, I was admitted to Chicago’s Alcoholic Treatment Center, a free program located in an old hospital building next to the Cook County Jail. I shared a cubicle with five other men. I had the cot closest to the north window that overlooked a wall with barbed wire at the top and intermittent guard towers.
The worst thing about treatment was the coffee: it was bourbon-less, for one thing. And worse, they only served decaf in the treatment center cafeteria. I’d sit around with the other lost souls, drinking the bad coffee, talking about the mess we’d made of our lives. One man had shot someone in a drug deal gone bad and had just been released from prison. Another was a Guatemalan man whose union-organizer brother had been killed and who’d believed he would be next. He’d fled to Chicago to escape the murderers but hadn’t been able to leave his craving for booze behind. We sat up all night around green, Formica tables drinking decaf. We told our tales of disappointment and despair. And drank more coffee.
After two weeks in treatment, we were allowed our first visit to the outside world. We were taken in vans to a Saturday morning AA meeting on Milwaukee Avenue. It was held in a big room over a dance studio where aspiring Polka dancers from the surrounding Polish neighborhood perfected their art. It was a breakfast meeting and there was a big buffet offering eggs and bacon, pancakes and the like. But best of all, there was real coffee. I ate a huge breakfast and drank three cups of coffee. I listened to people talk about their struggles with booze and their happiness about being sober. There was also a raffle at the end where several lucky winners won free passes to an upcoming AA dance.
After not having real coffee for two weeks, the effect of the caffeine was miraculous. I felt clear and happy. But my hands shook the whole ride home.
The early days of my sobriety were defined by coffee. Every AA meeting I went to had coffee. It usually tasted pretty awful because it was made by volunteers who were new to sobriety. To this day when I smell a cup of coffee brewing, I think of AA.
Twenty years later, I drink coffee every morning. Good, expensive coffee. Usually organic. My second wife, who’s only known me sober, sits at her computer in the next room, sipping a black coffee.
We met because of coffee. When we were both in graduate school in Florida, we attended a writer’s conference on the Panhandle, and my future wife was a graduate assistant who received free tuition in exchange for making coffee for the various workshops. The first morning of the conference, I encountered her in the kitchen of the house where my poetry class was to be held; she was looking quizzically at a bag of Starbucks and a coffee filter.
I asked her if she needed help. She said, “Yes, I really do. I’ve never made coffee before.”
I looked at this beautiful woman whom I’d seen around school but never talked to and got really nervous, so I simply poured the coffee into the filter and added the water without measuring it. The coffee turned out really strong. The people in the poetry workshop complained. My future wife and I went out for coffee the next morning at a nearby restaurant that overlooked the Gulf of Mexico. It was one of those bright Florida mornings when anything seems possible. We drank coffee and laughed at the “Sunshine State” placemats which showed Disney and mermaids and oranges. A year later at the same writer’s conference we got married.
Now I’m remembering the name of the restaurant: The Wheelhouse. And I’m even remembering our waitress’ name, Frankie Day. She was having husband trouble—her man was an alcoholic who’d disappear for days at a time, then check in from some small town in Alabama, or Georgia, or somewhere else within the Bible Belt. He’d be broke and hung-over, asking for money to get home with. Wiring money, like ending a sentence on a preposition, is a risky business, and Frankie was fed up with the dude, and I told her I didn’t blame her.
My wife had pancakes. She always had pancakes for breakfast. I had pigs in a blanket with a side of hash browns. The coffee was lousy but I enjoyed it anyway. I’d been sober for about a decade and I wanted to tell Frankie that there’s always hope. I didn’t. Instead I flirted with Lyn, and we laughed about the bad smell in the joint. We came to call it “The Cat Piss Restaurant,” instead of The Wheelhouse.
All these years later, I still love coffee. It wakes me up, helps clear away those very tangible cobwebs that linger from sleep. I see a horse running across a Kentucky pasture; I see my first wife crying when they turned off our electricity; I see drunken winters in Chicago, so cold the earth and sky turned blue; I see again the treatment center and taste the decaf; I remember those first sober days when I ran along the lake; I see Florida; I see my second wife, Lyn; and I see the stain and drip of years of coffee on my desk this morning, a sort of tattoo that reminds me of where I’ve been, where I’ve dreamed, and the meanings I’ve made of both.
Jesse Millner’s poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in the Florida Review, upstreet, Conte, River Styx, Pearl, The Prose Poem Project, Tinge, The New Poet, Cider Press Review, Real South, The Best American Poetry 2013 and numerous other literary magazines. He has published six poetry chapbooks and two full-length collections, most recently Dispatches from the Department of Supernatural Explanation (Kitsune Books, 2012). Jesse teaches writing courses at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.