I once lived in a house with gray siding in Washington, Illinois. You may have lived in a house made of brick in a different town. (Maybe one of straw—quick, is there a wolf outside the door?) I’m not here to judge. But where I lived there were two hybrid elms in the front yard and a redbud tree in the back yard.
The redbud grew so slowly that to a nine-year-old it seemed like it was always close to death, until the nine-year-old got older and paid attention to other things. When his attention returned to domestic matters, it seemed as though the redbud—just a stick with three to five leaves and always in danger of being crushed underfoot—had turned into a shade tree in a couple of days.
My sister and brother lived in the house. Parents, too. I understand they owned the place. Or at least paid the taxes, which in those times, just like our own, passed for ownership. (You want to find out who really owns your house? Don’t pay the taxes. Someone representing the real owners will show up in short order.)
The redbud was just south of the patio, which is where the patio would have been had there been a patio at the bottom of the back steps. Maybe there was a concrete slab there and I’ve just forgotten it. (It’s not important to this story, so don’t call me on this, Jane.) On sunny summer weekends, Dad would sometimes sit in an aluminum lawn chair with green nylon webbing (maybe blue, again, not important) in the shade of the redbud and drink coffee.
I remember he once asked me to refill his cup—it must have been the first time I had been asked to interact with the coffee maker. I climbed the back stairs with the cup, mentally rehearsing the return trip.
Keep in mind that most of the cups I had used until then were round and without a handle. Climbing the stairs, I practiced using the handle. Seemed pretty straightforward, handy even. I entered the kitchen, confidently filled the cup, probably a little too full since I wanted to deliver value, and returned to the top of the stairs.
But everything was a bit different. I had practiced with an unloaded cup during an ascent. Now I was carrying a heavier cup during a descent. The handle was just as cool as before, but the rest of the cup was noticeably warmer. I considered the unreasonably small knuckle space between the handle and the cup.
First step, okay. Second step, okay. Third step, maybe too quick with the right foot, certainly too quick with the left to maintain my balance. I didn’t spill the coffee, exactly. The contents hovered above the cup and then returned to it. In the speedy resettlement, some of the coffee retired from the battle for the bottom of the cup and landed on the top of my arm.
Hot coffee. Man-o-man hot coffee. But I didn’t let go of the cup and delivered it, with apologies, half full to Dad. I thought to myself That burns. How can he drink something that hot?
Eventually, I started drinking coffee. Turns out it’s pretty easy to drink hot coffee. You just have to practice. I’ve been practicing for decades now. Drinking coffee just like Dad drank it. Just like Mother drank it. Hot and black. The only two things that belong in a coffee cup: hot and black.
(FYI: Sugar and cream are for guests. Given their dilution of a perfectly good cup of coffee, you question their commitment to a life well lived, but, still, they are guests and you’ve been brought up to consider their needs, no matter how foreign to your own.)
I’ve experimented with cold-brew coffee, but it’s not coffee. If vendors want to call it coffee, they’re entitled to, but cold brew is just another drink—like water or wine or soda or beer. I don’t confuse any of those for coffee.
My definition of coffee is an ancient one. Coffee is something that burns when it lands on a child’s arm. If it doesn’t burn, it isn’t coffee. If it does, it might be.
I drink coffee during lunch. In fact, my lunch is all coffee. Oh, maybe a scone, maybe a cookie, but the occasional baked good is only a sideshow to the main event: Hot. Black. Coffee. I call it lunch because it comprises one syllable and I only have a half hour for lunch. If I were to take a three-frickin’-syllable coffee break, I’d demand forty-five minutes to complete the mission.
These days, I mostly drink coffee outside in the shade of trees that were planted on a golf course that no longer exists. If it’s late in the day, I pedal to another coffee spot, one without trees or even umbrellas, and drink in the shade of the building. When it comes to lunch, shade is just as important as coffee. A book is important, too: something to read, something to think about.
Sometimes I’m asked How can you drink something so hot on such a hot day?
I am told that such questions are rhetorical, not to be answered with anything more than a smile, perhaps a chuckle.
But sometimes I repeat the question to myself, silently: How do I drink something this hot? Well, just like this: sitting in the shade, trying to read a book but really thinking about a redbud tree that’s nowhere to be seen.