Two Brown Mugs
Two pottery mugs sit on my coffee table. They are medium-brown with caramel-colored spots and drippings, glazed to a soft sheen rather than a hard shine. Mine is filled with black coffee. Joe’s coffee has cream and sugar. He made sure I got the proportions right. He saw me as the stronger person because I didn’t need to adulterate the coffee. He came to his evening appointment without dinner, facing a fifty-mile drive home. He disliked the liquid inequality. It is eight p.m. and the coffee in our mugs is steaming. Joe has always been on time for four years and I make sure that the coffee is, too.
It is 8:05 and Joe isn’t here. Perhaps something happened on the Beltway. The steam coming off the top of the brown mugs isn’t rising as high now. Five more minutes and no Joe. Is something very wrong or am I creating a catastrophe from something he will easily explain when he walks in the door?
No. Something is wrong. I can feel it. 8:20. I can feel his absence. The coffee in our brown mugs has stopped steaming. I touch mine: moderately warm.
Should I call Joe’s ex-wife, whom I’ve met? A few minutes go by as I think of what this might mean to Joe if he should walk through my door momentarily. I wait. “Momentarily” has passed. I decide to place the call.
“Hello, Emilia? This is Marc Nemiroff. I’m sorry to bother you. Joe is very late for his appointment and I wonder if you might have heard from him.”
“Oh, Marc, hello. Joe is dead. He had a heart attack at his desk this morning. Goodbye.”
Minutes pass. I become aware that I have not been thinking, only sitting and staring. I think of Joe’s last month of sessions. He had begun to have chest pains as he approached his fifty-third birthday and refused to see a physician. He developed shortness of breath and refused to see a physician. He had dreams in which he lost his breath and upon awakening tried to return to those disrupted dreams for comfort. I fear that his is a passive suicide, about which I can do nothing.
I look at the clock. Joe’s fifty minutes have passed. He’s the last patient for the day and it is time to clean up. I look around the room as if to re-orient myself. There are the two brown mugs. I touch one: Cold.
I think of Joe. Orphaned at age ten. Raised secretly by his sixteen-year old brother. No other living relatives. He doesn’t remember the funerals. He finished school and joined the Navy, his only stable home. The Navy was eternal; the Navy couldn’t die. Joe was insidiously aware that no one in his family had lived to age fifty-three. His father died at fifty, his mother at forty-nine. His brother, an alcoholic, was found dead in the street at age fifty-two. Joe’s treasured possessions were his brother’s effects, found on him at his death: a driver’s license and a Navy dog tag.
I start shutting the office lights. The two brown mugs are still sitting there, still full, still cold. I have to do something with them. Toss them down the toilet? Too demeaning, almost cruel. What do I do? I sit for ten minutes, thinking groggily. Now I know.
I go to the bathroom sink and turn on the water. It somehow matters that the water be comfortably comfortingly warm. I take my mug in my left hand, Joe’s in my right, and pour them into the running water, commingled.
Now I need to clean them. I won’t use a sponge. I must do this with soap in my bare hands in the warm water. I feel the cool drops of soap and then the just-right warm water as I place my hands in Joe’s brown mug first, then mine, and wash and rinse them. I dry them with a clean towel, which I will use only for this purpose. Now I understand what I am doing. I am following the rules of Taharah, the Jewish ritual of washing a body before interment. I dry the mugs and place them in the darkness of my office closet.