[A novel in progress by Janine Gleason. Artwork by Janine Gleason and Karen Drastal.]
CHAPTER 5: Exploding on Empty
“Vrooom, vroom. Rattatat-tat-tat-tat-tat! Pyu-pyu-pyu-pyu!” Axel was flying his make-believe World War II Mustang fighter plane bar of soap in the shower.
Gabby poked her head through the bathroom door. “Axel, are you finished in there? What is that smell?”
“Vrooom, vrooom, vrooom.”
“Axel, I’m talking to you. Did you pee in the shower? It stinks.”
“It’s from asparagus,” Axel said proudly.
At dinner the night before, he had surprised Gabby by eating a whole bowl of cream of asparagus soup in addition to his favorite macaroni and cheese. A friend at school had let Axel in on the secret about funky asparagus pee smell. He had been excited to put it to the test.
“Finish your shower,” Gabby said. “Be sure to rinse off well. Especially below your waist.”
Gabby joined Brian and Shannon in the kitchen for breakfast. Brian, chastened after his confession to Gabby about his professional deceit, had risen early to surprise her by washing, drying, and folding a load of laundry. It was his first time. He said “good morning” and pointed proudly to the stack of clean clothes next to the dryer.
“Well, thank you, Brian. You did some laundry. That was … … ohhhh, noooo!!” Gabby shrieked when she saw her white jeans neatly folded on top of the pile. Her formerly white jeans that were now lavender. She yanked the offensive pants from the pile, letting the mauve legs unfold to drape over her outstretched arm. Gabby was now itching for a skirmish.
“What have you done to my new jeans! I can’t believe you never learned about sorting laundry, Brian!”
“Oh, yeah? And I still can’t believe you never learned that stripping a screw is not something obscene.” Brian was getting defensive. “Anyway, don’t worry. I will never mess up the laundry again.” His implication was unclear.
Axel, now dressed, suddenly appeared bunny-hopping his way into the kitchen.
“Dad,” he called out, “did you know rabbits eat their own poop?”
“Ewww!” Shannon grimaced and pretended to gag on her cereal.
“No, Axel, I didn’t know that,” Brian said. “Go get a plate for your toast.”
Axel hopped over to the toaster. He was in charge of making his own toast for breakfast, as he was very particular about spreading the peanut butter on the bread. It had to cover completely to the edge.
Shannon stuck her empty cereal bowl in the dishwasher, then thumped her thumbs at the small screen in her hands and announced she was leaving for school.
“I have to go. Mo texted me. She’s already waiting downstairs in the lobby.”
“Shannon, when you get home from school today, please vacuum Robert with the new dog-grooming tool,” Gabby said. “He’s looking scruffy.”
“I’ll try to remember,” Shannon said.
Gabby told her daughter to be careful on the subway.
“And I would love it if you would stop speaking in that creaky voice … that vocal fry. It’s hard on my ears,” Gabby said.
“Well then just listen to the words I’m saying and not how I’m saying them.” Shannon’s sarcasm trailed over her shoulder as she rushed out the front door.
“Brian, please encourage Shannon to stop speaking with vocal fry,” Gabby said when Shannon had left.
“I’ll try to remember,” Brian said.
“I’ll try to remember. I’ll try to remember. Apparently, that’s the phrase of the day,” Gabby said.
“What time is my dentist appointment?”
“I have no idea, Brian. Did I mention that I fired myself as your appointments secretary?” Gabby was heating up again. Brian, reheating his coffee in the microwave and contemplating whether he would still have a job by the end of the day, decided to ignore his wife’s snark. To provoke her further after ruining her jeans might start the next battle and he wasn’t in the mood.
Suddenly a loud crack like a thunderclap burst from the microwave as the door blasted open, startling Axel who immediately hopped over to investigate.
“Cool! Dad’s mug blew up!”
Brian, absentmindedly, had placed his empty coffee mug in the microwave and pressed start. The ceramic detonation was impressive judging by the number of pieces.
“What the hell, Brian!” Gabby shouted.
“That was my favorite mug,” Brian said. The commemorative mug had been a free gift from one of his naturist magazine subscriptions. Gabby hated the mug but resisted celebrating its demise, even as Brian proffered his excuse while cleaning up the shards.
“I have a lot on my mind,” Brian said softly.
Gabby turned to her son. “Axel, we need to leave now for the school bus.” Axel had left the scene of the blast and was sitting on the kitchen floor, eating his last bite of toast while Robert licked a spot of peanut butter from Axel’s cheek.
* * *
Gabby texted Jamal that she was on her way to the boat. That morning, she and her adviser would be taking the Callisto out on the water for the first time. Gabby was to begin her research project on Jamaica Bay with Jamal instructing her on the use of the sample collecting net and other equipment. Gabby had never used a flowmeter before, but she was excited to learn the technology.
“I have a surprise for you,” Jamal said when Gabby arrived at the dock. He opened his backpack and pulled out two matching t-shirts, handing one to Gabby.
“Put it on,” he said. “I hope it fits.”
Gabby held up the shirt. The slogan on the front read “Let’s Talk Trash!” And on the back side it read “Let’s Trash-Talk!” Jamal told Gabby that he ordered the shirts as a fun way to commemorate the start of her research on marine pollution.
“It’s very clever,” Gabby said. “Thank you, Dr. Tucker. I love it.”
The breeze blew a strand of her hair across her face and Jamal stepped closer to flick it away.
“Please. Call me Jamal,” he reminded her.
Getting out on the water brought back memories of the many summer afternoons Gabby had spent on her parents’ boat as a young girl. She still had good boat-handling skills. By the end of the second hour on the Callisto, she had learned how to set out the net to collect water samples and attach the flowmeter to measure water velocity. Jamal seemed pleased that Gabby learned quickly and was competent to drive the boat. The collection of water samples for her research had begun without a hitch.
“Good work, Gabs!” he said.
“Thanks. And please call me Gabby,” she said.
“No problem,” Jamal said. “The sample collecting is fairly straightforward. But, I expect you’ll struggle with the statistical analysis of your data.”
Gabby wasn’t sure what to make of Jamal’s comments. One minute he seemed overly familiar and the next minute dismissive. She watched the waves rolling away from the boat toward shore. The backwash from the retreating water left behind bits of detritus on the rocks. Jamal’s comment lodged in her mind like a sliver of sharp debris.
“It’s sad to imagine how many tiny particles of plastic are floating around in this bay,” Gabby said finally. “I hope I don’t get too depressed doing this research.”
“You won’t,” Jamal said. “I’ll make it fun for you.”
He made sure that Gabby saw him wink.
Gabby looked away, pretending to check the boat speed.
Oh, great. The guy’s a skirt-chaser.
* * *
With Callisto tied up at the dock, Gabby and Jamal returned to the lab. He showed her where to store the collected water samples, after which she managed to slip out of the building without attracting his attention.
She wondered where things were headed with Jamal. She enjoyed being out on the water, but their interactions left her uneasy. And she was starting to feel unsure of herself. Maybe she was just an imposter pretending to do serious research.
On her way home, Gabby sent a text message to Lola: “remind me to tell you about my adviser. acting peculiar.”
* * *
Seated at her kitchen table, Gabby was feeling the need for quiet contemplation. Finishing her coursework was not going to be a walk in the park. She knew that. All she wanted was to get through school without too many complications.
Brian had responded positively to her suggested compromise earlier in the day. He said he preferred a more pure naturist experience, but agreed that a clothing-optional camp upstate would be fine.
“For now,” he added.
He could spend his three weeks of vacation basking in his birthday suit. Gabby would take her classes during the week and she and the kids would visit—clothed—on the weekends. It seemed like the best plan for keeping peace in the family.
Shannon had protested in capital letters when Gabby texted her about the plan.
“I DON’T WANT TO SEE THAT MUCH NATURE!!!!!”
“I’m not wild about it either,” Gabby had replied. “We’ll make the best of it, ok?”
Staring idly at the floor, Gabby noticed some clumps of dog hair by the table. Then she saw that the dog-grooming tool had been left on the counter. Robert was nowhere to be seen. Gabby assumed that Shannon had taken him for his afternoon walk when she got home from school.
She was thinking she must thank Shannon for vacuuming Robert—She actually remembered!—when she heard the front door open. She looked up to see her daughter rushing toward her.
“Mom! Robert’s gone!! He ran away in the park! I looked everywhere!!”
Shannon was out of breath, her face splotchy red and contorted with worry.
“Oh, no,” Gabby said. “Calm down, Shannon. Tell me what happened.”
“I tried to vacuum him here in the kitchen like you wanted. He hated it! He wouldn’t stop squirming and barking. So, I took him to the park to brush him. But he kept getting tangled in the leash and I unclipped it just for a second and he took off!”
She handed Robert’s leash to Gabby and sobbed.
“I called for him and looked everywhere. I asked a whole bunch of people if they’d seen him. By now, someone probably stole him.”
“We’ll find him,” Gabby said. “Don’t worry. We’ll make signs to put up around the neighborhood and in the park.”
“I’m going to post his picture online right now,” Shannon said, wiping her nose on her sleeve.
* * *
Brian arrived home and was barely through the door when Shannon and Axel together broke the news about Robert. The kids had spent an hour making Lost Dog posters.
“Dad, we need to go out to look for him and put these up,” Shannon said.
“Dad! You got a hoverboard!” Axel’s attention was momentarily diverted from his poster work to the hoverboard that his dad was holding under one arm.
“Yes, I did,” Brian said. “I’ve decided to go nature camping early and I’m bringing along a hoverboard.”
By now Gabby had joined the conversation in the kitchen, while the kids put the finishing touches on their posters.
“You’re home early,” Gabby said. “Our dog has gone missing.”
“Yup.” Brian said. “I’ve been put on indefinite leave of absence by management while they decide my fate.” He seemed resigned to his new employment status.
“Oh … I see,” Gabby said. It was a long minute before she resumed. With the kids there she didn’t want to interrogate Brian about the details just yet.
“And what possessed you to get a hoverboard?”
“I wanted one, that’s all,” Brian said. “And since no one else gave me a birthday present, I gave one to myself.”
“Oh, I totally forgot! I’m sorry, Brian. Happy belated birthday,” Gabby said.
Brian had forgotten her birthday last year. But still. She knew that this oversight lowered her moral high ground.
“I also bought these to take to the camp.” Brian opened a shopping bag and pulled out a pair of new shoes. Gabby was speechless.
“Oh … those are … different,” she said. Gabby had seen pictures of toe shoes, but it never occurred to her that Brian would buy a pair. Let alone lime green ones with black laces.
“Thanks!” Brian said. “Roxanne helped me pick them out during lunch hour. You should get a pair, too.”
“You know I can’t wear shoes like that.” Gabby was starting to get annoyed. She spit out the words like hot vinegar.
“Oh, yeah,” Brian said. “I forgot about your weird toes.”
“So, when were you planning to go off to nature camp?” Gabby demanded.
“In the next couple of days,” he said. “My plan is to stay there until I find out whether I get to keep my job.”
“Oh,” Gabby said. “I see … So, the kids and I …”
“The kids have to be in school, and … ” Brian blurted out the beginning of his thought, then checked himself. He assumed Gabby and the kids would carry on with normal life during his leave of absence. He decided not to remind Gabby that none of them wanted to go nature camping, anyway.
“Just go then, Brian.” Gabby turned away. If she uttered another word just then, she might regret it and the kids were within earshot. There were so many questions she wanted to ask Brian. What were the terms of his probation? Why the hoverboard and toe shoes? And what the hell was really going on with Roxanne? Had he invited her to visit him at nature camp?
“I’ll try to come to the camp this weekend and bring the kids,” she said. “We can celebrate your birthday.” She pretended to muster enthusiasm, but the words landed flat. “Right now, we have to go find our lost dog.”
[To be continued … ]