[my novel in progress]
CHAPTER 2: Nature Calls
The morning began like most other weekday mornings.
“Axel, hurry up! You’ll be late for school!”
Gabby hollered at her nine-year-old son while checking the weather on her phone. The forecast called for a morning thunderstorm and they should have left five minutes ago to catch the school bus. Gabby heard the buzzing sound of Axel’s electric toothbrush through the closed bathroom door.
“Oh, my good gravy,” she muttered to herself and then shouted to Axel. “Are you still brushing your teeth? You know my pet peeve about leaving things until the last minute!”
Gabby adjusted her scarf in the hall mirror, her reflection stern with bulging eyes because Axel’s dillydallying was annoying. In their 30-story apartment building, the elevators stopped at almost every floor during morning rush hour. It took twice as long to descend to the lobby when practically every resident was trying to exit the building at the same time.
But, that was life in New York City. The rush and crush of humanity did not always bring out the best in people. Sometimes, Gabby had to place her hands over Axel’s ears during expletive-laden outbursts from fellow residents who were late for work and stuck in the elevator descending at a snail’s pace.
“What is taking that boy so long,” Gabby muttered.
Time to play the hysterical-mother card. She inhaled deeply and bellowed forcefully.
“AXXX-ELLLLLLL!! We need to leave right now!!”
Axel bolted from the bathroom looking sheepish. As he dashed past her toward the front door, Gabby noticed that he was using the sleeve of his new denim jacket to wipe greenish spume from his cheeks. Little globs pasted on his forehead and hair were evidence of a major mishap in the bathroom.
“What on earth did you do?” she asked, knowing full well that he had forgotten once again to put the loaded electric toothbrush in his mouth before turning it on. Axel was often preoccupied with thinking about his research projects, and it was not the first time he had spattered toothpaste on himself.
“I was trying to hurry,” Axel said. “I hate my toothbrush.”
“We’ll talk about it when you get home from school,” Gabby said. She helped wipe off his face and hair and hustled him out the door, grabbing her umbrella on the way.
“Mom, can we stop at the hardware store?” Axel was trying to keep up with Gabby who was beelining toward the elevators.
“No! You’re going to be late for the bus as it is. And what, may I ask, do you need at the hardware store?”
Although he was only in fourth grade, Axel’s imaginary self was Dr. Axel the Research Scientist. He loved to collect data and kept notebooks full of lists and numbers while continually inventing new research projects for himself.
“I’m doing a survey of hardware stores,” he stated. His plan was to go to ten different stores and talk to the person in charge of cutting keys. Pulling one of his notebooks from his backpack as they waited for the elevator, he read aloud his carefully written survey question:
“Have you ever made copies of keys stamped ‘Do Not Duplicate This Key’? Do not lie.”
Gabby listened as Axel explained that he planned to tally all the responses and record the findings for posterity in his notebook. She was certain that 100% of the responses would be “No,” but she said nothing. Axel had a keen sense of right and wrong and she didn’t want to dampen her son’s enthusiasm for uncovering wrongdoing, which he had done on occasion. As the elevator dinged and they pressed themselves into the crowd descending to the lobby, Gabby thought back to the time Axel and his dad came home after an outing in Central Park.
Father and son had been strolling through Strawberry Fields when a very large man walking nearby threw a plastic cup on the ground. Before Brian could restrain him, Axel ran over and started tugging on the pant leg of the litterbug. Although he was socially awkward with his peers, Axel never seemed shy around adults. Brian had worried that there might be punching and shoving between himself and the very large man who was getting his pants yanked by a nine-year-old boy with freckles, thick glasses, and brown curly hair.
“You do not do that!” Axel had said in his most authoritative voice while shaking his finger at the man. The giant litterer glared at Axel and then at Brian, who had quickly apologized.
“I grabbed Axel’s hand and we ran like hell,” Brian had told Gabby when they got home.
Gabby loved that Axel was developing an exemplary moral compass. But she wondered how to help him understand that in certain situations he should first think about his own safety. Especially when he felt the urge to be a pint-sized litter patrol.
* * *
Wind-driven rain assaulted them abruptly when Gabby and Axel emerged from the lobby of their building onto the street. They needed to hurry so as not to miss the school bus. Gabby braced herself against the west-side windiness, frequently intense, and struggled to open her umbrella.
“Why did I buy this cheap thing?” she yelled to no one into the wind.
“I don’t know, Mommy.” Axel looked forlorn in his rain-soaked jacket, the light-blue denim staining dark as wet patches expanded across his small shoulders.
Remembering her meeting scheduled for later that morning distracted Gabby for a second. Her academic adviser was meant to help with her registration for summer school, but if she showed up drenched … well, that proverb about first impressions being the most lasting was probably true.
The rain turned from pelting drops to sheets. Seeing the bus stop up ahead in the next block, Gabby gave a forceful shove and the umbrella finally opened. It was also when Axel made his announcement.
“Sometimes, rain makes me wanna pee.”
Gabby looked at him and stifled a shriek. She knew immediately what had happened.
“Oh, Axel.” Gabby tried to sound calm. “I know you couldn’t help it. But, really, what next?”
She hated the thought of Axel wearing wet underwear all day. There was another time it had happened not too long ago, just before he turned nine. She remembered how humiliated he had been.
The bus pulled up as they arrived at the stop. The usual group of kids and parents was already waiting in the shelter. Having arrived just in time, Gabby heaved a sigh of relief and tried to sound cheerful.
“Have a good day at school, dear. Go to your locker first thing and change into your gym pants, ok? We have a lot to talk about when you get home. And Shannon can help you with your research project. It sounds interesting.”
“I don’t want her help,” Axel said defiantly. “She’s a dumb-ass and a big smelly shart.”
“What did you say?” Gabby raised her voice above the noise of the rain thumping the roof of the bus shelter. “What did you call your sister!?”
Axel said nothing and darted toward the steps of the bus without looking back.
“You and I and your father will be having a conversation tonight, little mister mouth! I don’t want you calling people names! People includes your sister!” Gabby’s vigorous yelling was swallowed up by the downpour. She noticed some of the parents in the shelter staring at her.
Gabby and Axel usually had a little good-bye ritual every morning at the bus stop. When Axel got on the school bus, he would look back over his shoulder at his mom. Gabby would make a heart shape in the air with her fingers and thumbs, framing his face. This time Axel did not look back at his mom. There would be no heart framing today.
* * *
Gabby scurried toward home. She would need to quickly change out of her wet clothes before her meeting. Her skirmish with Axel that morning occupied her thoughts. On an impulse, she darted into a corner store and bought a box of elbow macaroni. Axel had been begging her to make mac and cheese for the past week. If she made his favorite dish for dinner it would be a nice mom-treat, considering the unpleasant chat they would be having when he got home from school. His mouthing off and toothpaste messes were happening much too frequently. Then there was the pants-wetting. She wouldn’t bring that up until she spoke with his pediatrician.
Leaving the store, a gust of wind inverted her umbrella, causing her to drop the paper bag containing the box of elbows and loose change. She looked on helplessly as nickels and dimes from the torn bag scattered over the slick pavement and macaroni escaped through the broken cellophane window of its cardboard container. A young couple quickly looked away as they hurried past her.
“Thanks so much for offering to help!” Gabby shouted into the wind.
By the time she got home, Gabby was exhausted and crabby. Her auburn-blonde hair, naturally straight, was now dank and stringy. She tossed the soaked torn bag with its soggy contents onto the kitchen table. There, waiting for her, were the vacation brochures. Her eyes lingered on the titles: Naturist Club. Nude Camping. Clothing Optional Beaches. Plan Your Summer Vacation Now, Birthday Suiters! Naturism. Naturally Nude. Next to the pile, Brian had left a handwritten sticky note with a smiley face: “Gabby, let’s discuss.”
“Dammit, Brian!” Gabby shouted at the brochures. “You and your mid-life crisis!”
To be continued …